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New North-West Passage vs Northern Sea Route

Can the North-West Passage along the coast of Alaska and Canada compete against the Northern Sea Route along the Russian North?

Can North-West Passage compete against the Northern Sea Route? Global warming and the rapid melting of Arctic ice have presented us with a new and potentially the shortest and cheapest way to transfer goods between East Asia and Europe. The Northern Sea Route is called “The Northern Silk Road” by some. It stretches from the eastern part of the Asian continent along the Russian north coast to some of the busiest Europan ports. However, it is not the only option for transporting goods from Asia to Europe. The other option is the North-West Passage stretching from East Asia to North Europe and passing the cost of Alaska and Northern Canada.

This development is significant for more than just commercial shipping. The development of northern routes that could replace the current traditional ways of commercial shipping would have a dramatic impact on the geopolitical balance of power. Today, whoever is controlling the Strait of Malacca and Siez Kanal, is controlling more than 80% of the international trade and commercial shipping, including strategically important transport of energy sources. One of the biggest handicaps of Russian geographic position is its lack of access to the “warm seas”. Despite thousands of kilometres of coastal line, Russia was not considered to be a naval nation because most of that long coast was frozen.

In short, if the Northern Sea Route along the Russian northern coast becomes commercially viable, the US will lose the ability to control commercial shipping going through the Strait of Malacca. Currently, most of the oil and gas supplies to the People’s Republic of China could be easily interrupted by the US. Practically all supplies of oil and gas to Japan go through the Strait of Malacca. It might be the most important reason for Japan’s vassal position towards the US.

The North-West Passage History

The exploration of the Northwest Passage was initiated by Sebastian Cabot in 1498. However, the NWP was first completely traversed by Roald Amundsen in 1903–1906. By then, both the Suez and Panama Canals were already in full operation. Therefore, that had no importance from the commercial point of view.

The main wave of colonization in Canada went along the steppe south along the border with the United States. The North of Canada developed exclusively from a resource point of view (the gold rush and oil).

The North-West Passage vs Northern Sea Route – Some comparisons

There is a significant difference between the population of these two large regions.

There are 118,000 people in the immediate north of Canada.

For comparison: 11.5 million people live in the north of Russia.

An estimate is that about 36,000 people live in the region of the Northwest Passage on the islands of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

For comparison, 2.5 million people live along the Northern Sea Route.

However, it must be considered that a significant part of this population comprises indigenous peoples. For example, in Nunavut (through which most of the NWP passes), out of 36,858 people, only 13.3% or 5,210 people are non-aboriginal. In the Canadian Northwest Territories, out of 41,070 residents, only 39.7% or 16,305 people are European Canadians. Those. the non-aboriginal population in northern Canada is 21,515. The administrative unit of the North Slope of Alaska, which overlooks the coast of the Arctic Ocean, has a population of 7,385 people, of which 31.62% or 2,335 people are non-aboriginal people. In Russia, the indigenous peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East all together amount to 300 thousand people.

The contrast becomes even more striking when comparing the largest cities in the north.

The largest city on the NWP and the capital of Nunavut, Iqaluit, has as many as 7,741 people, which is closer to an urban-type settlement within Russia. The largest city in the north of the United States, Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow), has an even larger population of 4,443. Nuuk, the capital of Danish Greenland, has a population of 18,128. Arkhangelsk, the largest city in the north of Russia, has 350 thousand people, and the largest city directly on the Northern Sea Route, Murmansk, has 267 thousand people.

Infrastructure and ice-breaking capabilities comparison

Canada has 6 icebreakers in service and 1 in construction. Canada has 3 icebreakers of ice class 3 (independent navigation in small broken ice of the non-Arctic seas and in solid ice behind the icebreaker with ice thickness up to 0.7 m). It also has 3 icebreakers of class 4 (independent navigation in rarefied first-year Arctic ice with a thickness of up to 0.6 m in winter-spring navigation and up to 0.8 m in summer-autumn navigation.

The USA has 5 icebreakers, Denmark has 4 icebreakers, and Russia has 37 icebreakers. Only Russia has a fleet of heavy nuclear icebreakers up to the highest ice class. Out of 2 heavy icebreakers in the USA, only 1 is operational. Also, in the US, there is a private icebreaker Aiviq for transporting stationary anchors and a scientific icebreaker Nathaniel B. Palmer.

Unfortunately, the Arctic is almost certainly becoming the next point of Conflict between the US (including NATO and the EU) and the rest of the world. It might seem to be a conflict between the West and Russia, but the real targets are China, Japan and India. That is probably the reason for the increasing cooperation between Russia and China and Russia and India. However, Japan is obviously too scared to join in. For how long? It remains to be seen.

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