Since mid-November 2023, the Houthis’ actions in the Red Sea have posed a serious challenge to the safety of international commercial shipping, forcing many shipping companies to seek alternative routes to transport cargo. The number of container ships at the mouth of the Red Sea on their way to or from the Suez Canal was 90% down in the first week of January compared with the beginning of 2023.
The current situation emphasizes more than ever the need to explore alternative routes to transport cargo from Asia to Europe. Just as the Suez Canal once made it possible for ships to sail from Europe to Asia and vice versa without bypassing Africa, and the Panama Canal removed the need for ships travelling from New York to San Francisco to bypass all of South America, today the Northern Sea Route (NSR) is seen as the shortest route between Europe and Asia, even compared to the currently used shipping lanes via the Suez Canal. To recall, Russia transported over 36 million tonnes of cargo along the NSR in 2023, setting a new record. In 2024, shippers plan to transport about 72 million tonnes of cargo via the NSR.
Does cargo traffic along the NSR have a potential to grow, given current geopolitical situation in the Middle East and ice melting caused by climate change?
Russian experts still hardly believe in the development of regular container shipping via the NSR, commenting that this is not a route for everyone.
Given the circumstances, the NSR’s role is increasing, but its chances of becoming a full-fledged alternative to the conventional maritime routes are not high due to infrastructural limitations. In addition, the eastern part of the Northern Sea Route experiences difficult ice conditions from around the end of November to April. There is no shipping traffic during this time.
The matter of the NSR is becoming more relevant when companies such as the BP OIL UK, CMA CGM France, Hapag-Lloyd, Swiss-based global container shipping company MSC and Danish A.P. Moller-Maersk announced the suspension of shipping through the Red Sea.
A part of maritime traffic between Asia and Europe, of course, may be diverted to the Northern Sea Route, provided that the infrastructure of northern ports is developed, especially facing difficulties with shipping in the Red Sea.