Societal impacts of climate change: Ocean transport routes

By Matt Burdett, 28 February 2018

On this page, we look at the impacts of climate change on people and places, including ocean transport routes.

  • Civitavecchia, Italy: Container ports like this are the way most of the world’s goods are moved onto ships and around the world. As ice in the Arctic melts, some of this transport will go straight over the Arctic’s North Pole. The containers are the colourful rectangular boxes stacked behind the blue cranes.

Ocean transport routes

Ocean transport routes account for 90% of global trade (UN, 2018). The vast majority of these goods were transported by container ships. These are massive vessels that are loaded with containers – large metal boxes that can be easily placed on lorries, trains, and ships.

Melting ice in the Arctic

The melting of the ice in the Arctic offers huge potential for the transport of products between the North Atlantic and North Pacific; currently, due to the Arctic ice cap, it is rarely possible for ships to safely traverse the northern coastlines of Canada and Russia. As this ice melts, there is an opportunity for the development of new shipping routes, as shown on the graphics below.

​Arctic summer sea ice extent, based on historical satellite records and climate modeling through 2100.​

  • Arctic summer sea ice extent, based on historical satellite records and climate modeling through 2100. Source: Struzik, 2016.

Benefits of Arctic sea transport

When the ice melts, there will be new routes as shown below. These new routes will be up to 40% shorter than the existing routes and be used for up to 5% of world trade (Yumashev and van Hussen, 2017). The new routes will be much faster, reducing time taken between ports.

  • Potential new Arctic shipping routes. Source: Vidal, 2016.

  • New routes and faster shipping. Source: Patel and Fountain, 2017.

  • Reductions in journey time by going via the Arctic. Source: Patel and Fountain, 2017.

Problems with the potential for Arctic sea transport

This isn’t entirely beneficial. There are several concerns (Yumashev and van Hussen, 2017):

  • Existing routes will see a reduction in trade. This is significant for Egypt, as around two thirds of the ships currently using the Suez Canal might use the Arctic instead
  • It is likely to be the 2030s before shipping companies are making profits using these routes, and for full size container ships it could be 2050 – so the economic benefits are too far away to be predictable
  • Emissions from ships (which are normally amongst the most polluting of transport types) will be small compared to the global emissions total, but they may have profound impacts on the pristine Arctic environment

In any case, it is not currently practical. Russian attempts to develop their northern ports have largely failed. Russia offered ice breaker ships to assist the movement of cargo, and developed port facilities at ports such as Murmansk, and after early success with 1.3m tonnes moved in 2013, the amount of trade decreased, and was just 100,000 tonnes in 2015 (Vidal, 2016).

A further problem is the geopolitical sensitivities of the region. As the Arctic is currently covered by ice, there is little opportunity for resource exploitation. As the ice melts, minerals and oil under the ice cap will be available for exploitation, which may influence the routes of vessels. Furthermore, there is competition for these resources; for example, the Lomonosov Ridge underneath the Arctic Ocean is disputed between Russia, Canada and Denmark, which may affect the military and economic control over the waters.

  • Territorial issues and resources in the Arctic. Source: Micallef, 2017.


Micallef, 2017. Russia’s Evolving Arctic Capabilities. Accessed 28 February 2018.

Patel and Fountain, 2017. As Arctic Ice Vanishes, New Shipping Routes Open

Struzik, 2016. Shipping Plans Grow as Arctic Ice Fades. Accessed 28 February 2018.

UN, 2018. International Maritime Organisation. Accessed 28 February 2018.

Vidal, 2016. Arctic shipping passage ‘still decades away’. Accessed 1 March 2018.

Yumashev and van Hussen, 2017. Towards a balanced view of Arctic shipping: estimating economic impacts of emissions from increased traffic on the Northern Sea Route. Published in Climatic Change, July 2017, Volume 143, Issue 1–2, pp 143–155. Accessed via Accessed 28 February 2018.

Societal impacts of climate change: Ocean transport routes: Learning activities


  1. What percentage of world trade is carried by ocean transport? [1]
  2. Describe the extent of Arctic sea ice and its predicted change by the end of the 21st century. [3]
  3. What are the names of the four future routes through the Arctic? [2]
  4. Describe the benefits that these new routes are likely to bring. [4]
  5. Suggest why some argue that these benefits will be outweighed by the environmental and economic impacts both in the Arctic and elsewhere. [4]

Other tasks

  1. Look at the photograph of a container port at the top of the page. What ‘geography’ can you identify? For example
    1. Coastlines as contested places (contested between transport, tourism, urbanisation, conservation)
    2. Global trade
    3. Etc etc

2. Come up with an extended response question and answer it. Consider the ‘essay style’ command terms such as:

  • Discuss
  • To what extent
  • Examine

Example: “To what extent is Arctic ocean transport likely to increase economic opportunities in the near future?”