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David Pendered

Report: Arctic trade route won’t harm Savannah port, yields 1845 explorers

By David Pendered

Oceanic shipping through the Arctic Circle isn’t likely to have much impact on global transport and investments in harbors, including the deepening of the Port of Savannah, a new report suggests.

There has been plenty of buzz about whether shipping along the fabled Northwest Passage will be a disruptor. The theory is that global warming will shrink sea ice and allow freighters to navigate the route. The Arctic Institute’s report issued in October dismisses such talk as, “overstated.”

Adding to the intrigue is the discovery Canada announced this month of the sunken flagship of an 1845 British expedition. The Sir John Franklin Expedition was lost while seeking a shortcut between Europe and Asia.

The notion that the Arctic route could threaten Savannah’s harbor is relevant, now that construction is imminent on the deepening of Savannah harbor. After all, the harbor is being deepened largely in response to another expectations of expanded use of another distant seaway – the Panama Canal.

Savannah’s advocates maintain the port must accommodate the larger vessels that will pass through the Panama Canal. Otherwise, they contend, Georgia will fade from the lucrative business of global oceanic freight.

The deepening project has focused attention on canal. While most eyes have been looking south, some shipping lines have looked to the north.

Talk of the Arctic seaways reached a high in 2013, when a Chinese vessel landed in Rotterdam after navigating the Northern Sea Route from northeastern China.

By crossing through the Arctic, the cargo vessel Yong Sheng is said to have reduced transport costs by arriving in 35 days instead of the 48 days needed to sail through the Indian Ocean and Suez Canal.

Armed security is one cost that could be trimmed as the need to defend against pirates in the Indian Ocean is eliminated, according to a report from the non-profit Stimson Center. The Yong Sheng is said to be the first Chinese vessel to ever navigate the high latitude route across the continent.

According to a report from the Stimson Center:

  • “As a result of steadily retreating summer ice margins in the Kara Sea, the Laptev Sea and East Siberian Sea, increasing fuel costs for merchant vessels, and the extant threat of piracy in the northern Indian Ocean, the NSR [Northern Sea Route] has in very recent times become of clear commercial interest to global maritime trade.”

The Arctic Institute’s report agrees that commercial interests may focus on the NSR.

However, the interest is unlikely to translate into a meaningful level of trade anytime soon, the report states.

The challenges to expanding seagoing routes are enormous, regardless of the extent to which the sea ice may melt. In short, the Arctic is difficult to transit because it’s remote, sparsely developed, and a place where international laws are still being crafted.

According to the report:

  • “This paper argues that optimism regarding the potential of Arctic routes as an alternative to the Suez Canal is overstated.
  • “The route involves many challenges: jurisdictional disputes create political uncertainties; shallow waters limit ship size; lack of modern deepwater ports and search and rescue (SAR) capabilities requires ships to have higher standards of autonomy and safety; harsh weather conditions and free-floating ice make navigation more difficult and schedules more variable; and more expensive ship construction and operation costs lessen the economic viability of the route.”

Nonetheless, the lore of the Northwest Passage remains strong. Explorers sought a shortcut between Europe and Asia and were rebuffed until 1969, when the U.S.S. Manhatten, an ice breaker, navigated the route.

Canada is searching for the remains of an expedition that disappeared in 1845. Researchers think the ship they discovered in September is the remains of the flagship of Sir John Franklin, the HMS Erebus.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper released a statement that defines the Franklin expedition as such:

  • “On May 19, 1845, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror of the Royal Navy departed Greenhithe, England, on a much-heralded Arctic expedition in search of a Northwest Passage.
  • “Under the command of Sir John Franklin, with Captain Francis Rawdon Crozier second in command, the expedition’s two ships set out with a total complement of 129 officers and men. The two expedition ships were last seen entering Baffin Bay in August 1845.”


David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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