Suppose global warming melts the Arctic ice cap - at least in the summer?
Will the Northwest Passage become viable? Will a shipping route across Russia's northern coast compete with the Suez Canal for traffic between Europe and East Asia? Will a lot of shipping pass through the Bering Straits?
(from the procedings of the Arctic Marine Transport Workshop - click on the map to enlarge it)
Clifford Krauss, Steven Lee Myers, Andrew C. Revkin and Simon Romero explored some potential economic impacts of the loss of the Arctic ice cap for the New York Times in As Polar Ice Turns to Water, Dreams of Treasure Abound (Oct 10).
They look at the implications for oil production, fisheries, international relations...
The advantage of maritime shortcuts across the top of the world can be startling. For example, shipments from Murmansk to midcontinental North America by the well-worn route through the St. Lawrence Seaway and Great Lakes to Thunder Bay, in western Ontario, typically take 17 days. The voyage from Murmansk to Churchill is only 8 days under good conditions, and from Churchill, rail links snake down through Manitoba, the American Midwest and points south all the way to Monterrey, Mexico.
For Murmansk, an extended shipping season in Arctic ports that are now frozen much of the year could mean a boon in traffic - to the west and, perhaps once again, to the Far East.
The city was once the anchor of the Soviet Union's Northern Sea Route, which stretched to nearly 3,500 miles to the rich nickel mines at Norilsk and on to newly established Arctic colonies at Dikson, Khatanga, Tiksi and Pevek before reaching the Bering Sea.
At its height, in 1987, more than seven million tons of cargo traversed the icy route. But when the Soviet Union collapsed, so did the Northern Sea Route. Today it handles only 1.5 million tons.
The Murmansk Shipping Company, newly privatized, now uses its icebreakers for tourist cruises to the North Pole - $15,000 to $20,000 a ticket, depending on the cabin.
The same way an Arctic Bridge could drastically cut the distance to Canada, a revived Northern Sea Route could shorten the journey for goods and raw materials from Northeast Asia to Europe by 40 percent.
Vladimir M. Chlenov, the transportation minister from the Siberian republic of Sakha, a vast region that borders the Laptev Sea, envisions dozens of ships carrying gold, timber and other resources up the Lena River to the port of Tiksi, and from there through ice-free seas to Europe and Asia.
The waters near the Siberian shore - when free of ice - are too shallow for giant cargo ships, and the infrastructure needed for navigation has deteriorated. But a study conducted from 1993 to 1999 by researchers from Russia, Norway and Japan found that a route once sustained by Soviet diktat could also be viable for private enterprise.
There is, of course, a third Arctic shipping route besides the Arctic Bridge and the Northern Sea Route: the Northwest Passage. It would be the last of the three main routes to succumb to the thaw. But some Canadian officials, eyeing what will happen in 20 years, say it is all the more justification for investing in the rebirth of Churchill.
"We're gearing up for the future," said Mr. Lemieux, the Manitoba transportation minister. "We look to be the gateway, the logistical hub of the world for circumpolar navigation."
A lucky winner would be Pat Broe, the American who bought the Port of Churchill in 1997 almost as an afterthought, for a token $10 Canadian. Looking to expand his railroad company, OmniTrax, he had already paid $11 million for 810 miles of denationalized tracks in Manitoba. He acquired the port at auction, figuring he would rather own it than have someone else use it as a "toll booth" for his railroad.
Mr. Broe, a private man, declined to be interviewed for this article.
Since his acquisitions, OmniTrax estimates it has spent $50 million modernizing the port to accommodate big ships carrying exports like grain and farm machinery to Murmansk, and incoming Russian products, including fertilizer and steel. By some hopeful estimates, Churchill's shipping season could eventually grow to 8 or even 10 months a year, compared with the current 4.
Michael J. Ogborn, OmniTrax's managing director, said he could see a future for Churchill when "the activity at the port will be as busy as an anthill, with machines, people, freight and ships at dock."
For now, though, there is a problem. While the port has continued to ship grain to Europe and North Africa, it is still waiting for its ship to come in - any ship from Russia, to demonstrate the advantages of the Arctic Bridge.
"There is still a huge marketing effort needed to educate shippers why they should ship through Churchill," Mr. Ogborn conceded...
Revised October 11, 2005.