Could Russia's Northern Sea Route be revived to the point Alaska benefits?

Alaska sits strategically at the crossroads of the world's air and marine transit routes. As the climate warms--environmentally and politically--Russia's Northern Sea Route is attracting attention from the marine shipping industry. The Northern Sea Route could provide a shortcut between Asian and European markets that reduces the voyage by 4,000 miles to 6,000 miles--passing right through the Bering Strait.

Russia's Northeast Passage

John Doyle, executive director of Northern Forum, says Russia established the Northern Sea Route through its arctic waters as early as the 1930s for many reasons, not the least of which was to maintain independence from the rest of the world and establish dominance over the arctic region. He compares Russia's efforts and the trillions of dollars spent with the U.S.'s efforts to put a man on the moon.

The Northern Sea Route includes hundreds of ice-breaking ships and ice-class cargo ships, navigational aids, sea-ice studies, and major river and ocean ports. During Russia's superpower days, there were seven million tons of cargo transported each shipping season. But when the Soviet Union collapsed, so did the Northern Sea Route, and the tonnage dropped to 1.5 million. As part of Russia's re-adjustment to a more global arena, the Northern Sea Route was opened to international transit in 1991.

Alaska Advantages

The Bering Sea is the portal to the eastern entrance of that route. Alaska is already benefiting from a circum polar cruise that navigates Canada's Northwest Passage and Russia's Northeast Passage. Anchorage is the docking point for the 100 or so Quark Expedition passengers that are either ending or beginning their arctic cruise aboard a Russian icebreaker.

Alaska will benefit in other ways when the route is utilized. One way would be as a marine pit stop for transshipment centers. Alaska would also be used as a refueling stop.

Dutch Harbor and Adak already lie within range of the great circle route from the Pacific Northwest to Asia. Both are capable of servicing the area's shipping and fishing fleets. Both could be connection points for convoys headed for the Northern Sea Route and share in icebreaker service fees.

The Corp of Engineers is currently working on a feasibility study on expanding Red Dog Mine's Delong Terminal. This would upgrade Alaska's port infrastructure for other services and provide another northern port.

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