In March, when the Ever Given had stopped up the Suez, Russian officials invited shipping companies to consider the Arctic. Send your cargo from Asia to Europe through the Northern Sea Route, they urged. It knocks 4,000 nautical miles off the Suez journey, and the route grows freer and freer of ice every year.
Ever since the 17th century, when mariners began seeking the mythologized Northwest Passage above Canada, the great sail over the top of the world has been an object of desire because of its potential to abbreviate transit times. In an era of vanishing Arctic ice, these routes are turning into reality. Two years ago, Mike Pompeo, the then-US secretary of State, welcomed the “21st century Suez and Panama Canals” of the Arctic, which promised to “potentially slash the time it takes to travel between Asia and the West by as much as 20 days.”
That future is, in a sense, already here. In 2019, ships made 2,694 voyages using the Northern Sea Route, but only 37 of these were transits through the length of the route; the remaining were shorter trips on just a segment of the route. In 2020, the number of transits had risen to 62.