The Opening of the Transpolar Sea Route

Logistical, Geopolitical, Environmental, and Socioeconomic Impacts

Published in: Marine Policy (2020). doi: 10.1016/j.marpol.2020.104178

Posted on RAND.org on September 09, 2020

by Mia Moy Bennett, Scott R. Stephenson, Kang Yang, Michael Bravo, Bert De Jonghe

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With current scientific models forecasting an ice-free Central Arctic Ocean (CAO) in summer by mid-century and potentially earlier, a direct shipping route via the North Pole connecting markets in Asia, North America, and Europe may soon open. The Transpolar Sea Route (TSR) would represent a third Arctic shipping route in addition to the Northern Sea Route and Northwest Passage. In response to the continued decline of sea ice thickness and extent and growing recognition within the Arctic and global governance communities of the need to anticipate and regulate commercial activities in the CAO, this paper examines: (i) the latest estimates of the TSR's opening; (ii) scenarios for its commercial and logistical development, addressing the various transportation systems that could evolve; (iii) the geopolitics of the TSR, focusing on international and national regulations and the roles of Russia, a historic power in the Arctic, and China, an emerging one; and (iv) the environmental and socioeconomic consequences of transpolar shipping for local and Indigenous residents of communities along the TSR's entrances. Our analysis seeks to inform national and international policymaking with regard to the TSR because although climate change is proceeding rapidly, within typical policymaking timescales, there is still time to prepare for the emergence of the new Arctic shipping corridor.

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