Shipping and Transportation

shorter route from East Asia to Western Europe via the Northwest Passage
2 weeks
quicker distance from Northern Europe to China via the Northeast Passage
1 railway
in Alaska – the Alaska Railroad


The Arctic region is serviced by many modes of transportation, from sea and air to road and rail, though transport infrastructure is less developed in the Arctic than it is in more densely populated regions and the flow of both passengers and freight is generally lower than it is elsewhere because existing infrastructure is hard to maintain and investment is limited. Only Arctic seaports (including ports in Russia’s Murmansk, Scandinavia’s Narvik, and Alaska’s Valdez), which welcome passengers and act as fishing ports, experience higher transportation volumes than ports in southern seas. There are few railways and roads in the Arctic, though railways are a dominant mode of transportation in northwest Russian and service Arctic seaports. Roads, which are primarily used to meet local needs, as opposed to as interregional connections, are also mainly found in more populated areas. Air transport is highly developed in the Arctic and efficiently connects distant destinations.

Shipping routes

Amongst the Arctic’s most important shipping routes are the Northwest Passage (NWP) and the Northeast Passage (NEP). Before its discovery, the Northwest Passage inspired centuries of European exploration in search of a new trade route to Asia. Running through the Canadian waters in the Arctic Ocean as passages through the straits of the Arctic Archipelago, the Northwest Passage could become a valuable commercial shipping route that is, in fact, comprised of several routes at once as it becomes more accessible due to global warming-induced climatic changes. The passage was opened for use in summer for the first time in 2007. Further development of the Northwest Passage would lessen maritime shipping distances considerably. The distance between East Asia and Western Europe is about 13,600 kilometres via the Northwest Passage versus 24,000 kilometres via the Panama Canal.

The Northeast Passage spans eastward along towards the Kara Strait, travelling through the Norwegian Sea and the Barents Sea around the Scandinavian Peninsula and across the waters of the Russian Arctic towards the Bering Strait. The passage includes the Northern Sea Route (NSR), which starts at the border between the Barents Sea and Kara Sea and ends in the Bering Strait. As the maritime route that is likely to be ice-free earlier than the rest, the NSR is seen as the most economically promising at this point in time. The distance from Northern Europe to China is approximately 40 percent shorter via the NSR (at 12,800 kilometres) than it is across the Suez Canal (21,000 kilometres) and 10-15 days quicker. Though used during the Soviet period, the NSR was put on hiatus during the 1990s and relaunched only in 2009, when, accompanied by a Russian icebreaker, two German ships – Beluga Fraternity and Beluga Foresight – completed the first commercial voyage across the NSR.

Finally, linking the Russian port of Murmansk to the Hudson Bay port of Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, the 6,700 kilometre-long Arctic Bridge is a seasonal sea route used mostly for the shipment of grain from the Canadian Prairies to European markets.

Land transport

The expenses involved in building roads or railways in sparsely populated areas with great distances between settlements means that Arctic land routes are less developed than its maritime routes. For instance, there is only one railway in Alaska – the Alaska Railroad – which connects the port of Seward to the city of Fairbanks. The north of Scandinavia is also linked to southern cities by a railway leading to the Norwegian city of Narvik, which then connects to the Swedish border by the Ofotbanen railway, while Greenland has no intercity roads or railways at all.

The Alaska Highway traverses Canada’s Yukon Territory to link the continental United States and Alaska – its northernmost state – and the Dempster Highway (a Canadian branch of the Alaska Highway) reaches Inuvik in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Russia has the longest rail and road infrastructure in the Arctic, amongst them railways to Murmansk, an independent railway network connecting Norilsk and Dudinka, and the Magadan Highway, amongst others.

Air transportation

Many Arctic settlements are accessible only by air travel, whether light, often privately owned aircraft (which is common in Alaska and, to a lesser extent, in the Canadian Arctic) or helicopters (common in Greenland, where airfields are often impossible to build).

Photo: tsuguliev/Photogenica

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