Paper pulp from Quebec exported to Korea. Anodes from China delivered to the Baie-Comeau aluminum smelter. Deliveries that are nothing extraordinary, but the journey is: these products transited through the Northwest Passage, the new maritime route that connects the Atlantic and the Pacific through the Canadian North.
Climate change is helping to transform the old dream of the explorers of the Northern Route into a very concrete reality. Ice cover is decreasing, the navigation period is lengthening, and interest in the Northwest Passage is only increasing.
Between 2013 and 2019, maritime traffic increased by 25% throughout the Arctic and by 44% in the Northwest Passage, the “Canadian arm” of the ocean.
There’s a little bit of everything among the ships plying Arctic waters. Fishing boats, cruise ships, research vessels and supply ships for the communities and mining companies located there. Adventurers looking for thrills too. But still very few boats travel from one end of the 1,450 kilometer long passage to the other. It changes as the ice melts.
Navigation conditions in the Arctic have changed considerably, says David Rivest, who knows what he is talking about. He is President and CEO of Desgagnés Transarctik and President of Desgagnés Logistik, a maritime company that has been supplying northern communities for several decades.
For commercial navigation, the primary benefit of the Northern route is saving time and money. The Northwest Passage reduces the journey between Europe and Asia by 1,000 kilometers compared to the southern routes which pass through the Panama Canal and the Suez Canal. Although ship speeds often have to be reduced, the potential savings are considerable for a shipowner.
The chronic drought that is harming Panama Canal operations also contributes to increasing interest in northern routes. Dozens of ships loaded with goods must wait their turn to cross, because Panamanian authorities have reduced the number of daily crossings and the permitted draft due to the lack of water.
The Suez Canal, the favored trade route between Europe and Asia, is at the heart of a politically sensitive region which has become even more so since the start of hostilities between Israel and Hamas. Any widening of the conflict risks blocking a route that carries 10% of all global trade.
The situation has escalated in recent weeks as the Houthi rebels who control Yemen have launched missile attacks on merchant ships, prompting a US Navy response that sank three of the rebel boats. .
The United States has set up a special force in which Canada participates to protect civilian ships, while the cost of transporting goods passing through this region is exploding.
Shipping giants have had to reroute their container ships and sail them through the Cape of Good Hope, which bypasses South Africa and adds 10 days to their journey.
The possibility of opening a new route to international trade, which would pass through the north, is back in the news.
There is not one, but two routes that connect the Atlantic and the Pacific from the north. In addition to the Northwest Passage on the Canadian side, there is the Russian Northern Sea Route. The latter is much busier, explains Frédéric Lasserre, professor at Laval University and Arctic specialist. There is a real increase in maritime traffic on the Russian side, but it is destination traffic serving mining and other natural resource activities.
“For the most part, they are Russian companies, I would say 80%. This is not a reflection of the marked interest of international companies,” he explains.
The route on the Russian side could be ice-free faster than the Northwest Passage, and the Russians are already promoting it internationally.
Climate change has certainly facilitated the development of northern sea routes, says the professor. “Transit shipping is still marginal, but compared to what it was around thirty years ago, it is significant growth. »
“But that doesn’t mean that we are going to see an explosion of Arctic routes,” according to him.
“It is true that both the Panama Canal and the Suez Canal have vulnerabilities,” he says. But is it sustainable or can it be fixed? »
It will take more than that to divert world trade from its usual routes, according to him.
First obstacle: ships that pass through the Panama Canal or the Suez Canal cannot navigate the Arctic.
Canadian regulations prohibit navigation in the Arctic to ships that are not equipped with reinforced hulls. The main commercial shipping lines sail the South Seas with ships that cannot cope with ice.
Second obstacle: despite climate change, the shipping season will always be shorter in the Arctic.
“The disappearance of the ice that some are talking about is nonsense,” maintains Frédéric Lasserre.
“Despite climate change, the ice will always reform because rather than being -50 degrees, it will be -40. »
Even during the navigation season, which runs from June to September, drifting ice and unpredictable weather make navigation more risky in the North, which maritime carrier insurers do not like.
We should therefore not expect the Northwest Passage to be the next highway of global trade. “Rather than having five transits per year, there will perhaps be 40 or 50,” he says. The professor recalls that 18,000 ships pass through the Suez Canal each year and that 22,000 pass through the Panama Canal.
The likelihood of seeing reinforced hull container ships in the Northwest Passage is rather slim, but for shipping companies that already have a fleet equipped for Arctic navigation, this is an extraordinary opportunity to seize.
Wagenborg, the Dutch company that transported Chinese anodes to the Baie-Comeau aluminum smelter, made its first crossing of the Northwest Passage without the assistance of an icebreaker in 2016. It did so in 19 days, 30% less than through the Panama Canal.
Since then, Wagenborg has completed several other crossings and is banking on the development of economic activity in the region to increase its presence there.
The Desgagnés Group, which owns ships similar to those of Wagenborg, also believes that the benefits of the Northwest Passage will outweigh the risks of northern navigation.
“It’s not for tomorrow, but it will certainly happen one day,” says David Rivest. It’s no longer just theoretical. »