Northern Sea Route: Melting sea ice could mean Russia has jurisdiction over the Arctic route

Northern Sea Route: Melting sea ice could mean Russia has jurisdiction over the Arctic route

Northern Sea Route: Melting sea ice could mean Russia has jurisdiction over the Arctic route

The Russian-controlled Northern Sea Route is one of the few ways ships can navigate the Arctic. Melting sea ice could open passageways around it by 2035


June 20, 2022

An icebreaker in the Kara Sea

An icebreaker in the Kara Sea

Kirill Kudryavstev/AFP via Getty Images

One of the few routes ships can take through the icy waters of the Arctic is controlled by Russia. By the middle of this century, however, the melting sea ice could open a route that would allow ships to avoid Russia-controlled waters.

The Northern Sea Route stretches from the Kara Sea to the Bering Strait and encompasses much of Russia’s 24,000 kilometers of Arctic coastline. Traffic along the route is modest today: total Arctic shipping last year was equivalent to a day or two of traffic through the Suez Canal. But melting ice from a warmer climate could make sailing through the Arctic more appealing. Some polar routes are half as long as regular routes.

One barrier to more international shipping via the Russian-controlled route is fees and restrictions. Amanda Lynch of Brown University in Rhode Island says a shipping company told her, “We’re not afraid of icebergs. We’re afraid of icebergs with Russian paperwork.”

The legal rationale for Russia’s jurisdiction derives from a provision of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which gives countries jurisdiction over ice-covered waters within 200 nautical miles (300 kilometers) from their coast – an area that known as the exclusive economic zone. Melting ice and rising seas have destabilized those boundaries, Lynch says.

Lynch and Charles Norchi of the University of Maine modeled how different climate change scenarios would change jurisdiction for Arctic shipping lanes. Among all but the best-controlled emissions scenarios, they found that melting ice would open up a route through international waters over the Northern Sea Route for at least a month each year, starting between 2035 and 2065, depending on the scenario.

Vessels following this route would not be subject to the restrictions imposed by Russia on the Northern Sea Route, and the route would also be navigable by regular open water craft without the aid of icebreakers.

However, this assumes that Russia and other states continue to comply with international standards and laws at sea. “I don’t have much confidence that Russia will stop at the borders of their exclusive economic zone in what they see as their rights to enforce their jurisdiction over ice-covered waters,” said Scott Stephenson of RAND Corporation, a American think tank.

Besides shipping, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has “dramatically changed every Arctic setting,” Norchi says, from scientific collaboration to search and rescue.

In March, Russia was banned from the Arctic Council, the group of Arctic countries largely responsible for making the region a beacon of international cooperation and peace, even during the conflicts of the 20th century. “That’s all up in the air right now,” Stephenson says.

Reference magazine: PNASDOI: 10.1073/pnas.2202720119

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