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Is the Arctic Poised to Become the Next Silk Road?

Philip Bump contemplates a future in which Arctic Ocean trade routes give rise to thriving port cities dotting the northern coasts of North America and Eurasia alike.
November 24, 2012, 1pm PST | Ryan Lue
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Completed nearly a century ago, in what was arguably the most ambitious feat of engineering in human history, the Panama Canal opened the way for a new era of faster, better-connected global trade. Are trade routes across the Arctic Ocean next?

Major General Francis G. Mahon of the U.S. Northern Command says it's only a matter of time. “There are many, many others who have economic interests who would like to harvest [resources in the Arctic] and sell them on the economic market," he said at a panel discussion in the nation's capital last weekend. When trade between China and Europe stands to cut 40 percent off of existing routes through Panama or around Cape Horn, “From an economic standpoint, you know that will be exploited as quickly as possible.”

Writes Bump, "The northern coast of Canada is already dotted with small settlements. Imagine the growth of massive ports, connected by railroad to airports or cities or other commercial infrastructure. Imagine the Hudson Bay ringed with city after city offshoring huge container ships and tankers. Imagine a 'real coast,' the rush to build it out."

But there are complications that stand in the way of the move to build out trade infrastructure in the north. For one, settlements there depend on permafrost, and buildings and roads in the Yukon have collapsed with rising temperatures. In addition, "container ships and other large vessels draw a lot of water, requiring dredged shipping lanes and certain water depths. But the melting Arctic ice will occur at the same time as significant rise in sea levels, which could potentially shift which areas are most suitable for shipping. It also means that all of the standard building-on-the-coast caveats apply."

Of course, if it were that simple, it would have happened ages ago. But the thawing of the Arctic may make it feasible before too long.

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Published on Monday, November 19, 2012 in Grist
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