Arctic & Antarctica
Panamax vessels, like the container ship pictured here, were built to the absolute limit of the Panama Canal’s dimensions. Recent modernizations in 2016 now allow even larger ships, creatively dubbed “NeoPanamax,” to traverse the Canal. Photo: roger4336

Arctic - A Bridge Across Two Oceans: The Arctic Challenge to Panama Canal Shipping

If Given a pair of darts and a map, you would be hard-pressed to hit two spots more visibly different than Panama and the Arctic Ocean. These two places, disparate though they may be, are being brought together by the global threat of climate change.

The disappearance of the Arctic Ocean’s summer ice over the course of the next century could also herald the disappearance of Panama’s greatest economic engine – the Panama Canal – as shipping is instead redirected through shorter Arctic routes. The scale of this threat prompts three questions: what advantages does Arctic shipping provide over the Panama Canal, how is Panama confronting the issue, and how realistic is the prospect of greater volumes of Arctic shipping? To answer these questions, this article will first contrast the merits and importance of both Arctic and Panama Canal shipping, followed by an examination of Panamanian news articles and government statements, and then conclude with a feasibility analysis and future projections. The picture which emerges is a mixed one: Panama’s media tends to focus on more immediate threats than melting Arctic ice, and while the expansion of Arctic shipping itself seems inevitable, it remains to be seen how quickly and how practically it could overshadow the Canal.

The Lifeline of Panama

From as early as 12,000 BC, the Indigenous ancestors of the modern Ngöbe, Kuna, and Buglere peoples inhabited the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the thin isthmus that later became Panama.1) This gap between the world’s two largest oceans was only bridged in 1914, with the completion of the Panama Canal. Since assuming control of the Canal under the auspices of the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) in 1999, it has formed the cornerstone of Panama’s economic and diplomatic efforts. The Canal and its associated services encompass approximately 40% of Panama’s economy,2) and as of writing, revenues from the Canal have essentially increased five-fold since 1999. Official figures for 2019 set a new record, with tariffs on 468,779,276 PC/UMS3)net tons generating $2.592 billion USD, despite a dip in total transits from the preceding year.4) Growth has been brisk since the completion of a long-awaited modernization in 2016, an achievement touted by the ACP as “re-inaugurating” the Canal’s role as a global trade hub. The modernization project, which focused on the expansion of the Canal locks, has already achieved demonstrable success thanks to the expanded locks now accommodating up to 90% of the world’s crude oil and natural gas tankers.5) With rising revenues and new technical feats, how could the melting of polar ice drastically affect even a modernized Panama Canal?

The Arctic Passages

The Panama Canal’s success depends on its convenience – shorter distances equal lower shipping costs. The Canal revolutionized international trade upon its opening, as it allowed vessels to sail directly between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. What happens, then, when an even more convenient route opens, and seemingly with no upfront cost? Just as the Panama Canal earns record revenues year-after-year, so too is the Arctic Ocean seeing record rates of melting ice. As of August 2020, the Arctic Ocean maintains approximately 5.08 million km2 of thinner, late summer ice coverage, but it has lost 3.15 million km2 of late summer ice since 1979, at a rate of close to 76,800km2 per year.6) The Northwest Passage, a sea route which winds its way along Canada’s Arctic coast and provides the shortest route to the east coast of North America from East Asia, could be ice-free and navigable in summer within a matter of decades. Its sister, the Northeast Passage, chiefly follows the northern Russian coast, and so provides an alternative to shipping through the Suez. Between these two lies the more difficult but direct Transpolar Route, which could circumvent many of the Northwest Passage’s navigational, depth, and territorial issues were its summer ice to disappear, as could happen by 2050, according to scientific predictions.7) The extent of thick, multi-year ice is down 60 percent from 1980, and its replacement by thinner, seasonal ice could preclude the need for ice breakers for Arctic shipping.8) A shorter, toll-free transit route through the Arctic means not only less cost for freight, but also reduced carbon emissions, and these factors could seriously affect the decision-making of Panama’s key transit partners.

Arctic Voyages – Fluke or Trend?

Over the past decade, several high-profile transits through the Northwest Passage specifically have highlighted the danger of this alternate route to the Panama Canal’s dominance. Travelling from Vancouver to Finland in 2013, the carrier Nordic Orion saved $200,000 and four days of sailing by taking the Northwest Passage instead of the Panama Canal.9) More recently, the Finnish icebreaker Nordica set a record in 2017 by travelling 10,000 km in a mere 24 days by a similar route.10) Though these transits by individual ships have a limited impact on a broader scale, they nevertheless set a precedent which could herald far greater volumes of traffic through the Arctic in the near future.

A Looming Economic Disaster

Considering that the Northwest Passage would best facilitate shipping between the US East Coast and Asia, the picture becomes even grimmer for Panama. As of 2019, official stats record that a staggering 39 percent of total tonnage passing through the Panama Canal travels along the East Coast-Asia route, translating to 180,564,000 PC/UMS net tons out of 468,779,000 total.11) The next largest route by cargo throughput, between the US East Coast and the west coast of South America, comes out to 38,640,000 PC/UMS, or a mere 8 percent of total tonnage. The United States alone accounts for no less than 66.4 percent of Canal traffic by origin and destination, followed perhaps unsurprisingly by China at 13.6 percent.12) On a global scale, the Panama Canal facilitates approximately 5 percent of total oceanic shipping, an impressive figure, but one which is overwhelmingly dependent on the flow of trade between the US and China.

Given the inexorable march of climate change and unprecedented ice melt in the North, the question facing the Panama Canal in terms of future traffic loss is less “if” and more “how much.” The East Coast – Asia route is indisputably the cornerstone of Panama Canal traffic, and if the US and China leap at the opportunity for up to 30 percent shorter journeys compared to taking the Canal,13) the losses in revenue for Panama could be staggering. Using the 2019 figures as a baseline, a conservative loss of 25 percent along the East Coast – Asia route alone would see PC/UMS tonnage drop by 45,141, or more than 7,000 PC/UMS than the next leading route has total. A far worse scenario with 75 percent losses would see a staggering drop of 135,423 PC/UMS, a whopping 29 percent of total tonnage.

Tariffs would likewise have to be adjusted to maintain competitiveness with Arctic alternatives. Though the fees levied depend on a wide range of circumstances, the largest container ships of 10,000 TEU (twenty-foot equivalent containers) and over could expect to pay upwards of $1,000,000 USD, while older Panamax vessels average to around $500,000.14) As such, Panama would not only be receiving substantially less shipping through the Canal, but even the shipping it receives would be paying less. Given the potential scale of the threat facing Panama if Arctic ice continues to melt at present rates, one would imagine that it would be front-and-centre in national discourse.

Panama’s media is dominated by a handful of newspaper conglomerates who comprise most of the country’s news sources. The exception is Telemetro, a popular television news network which has expanded its presence very successfully online. With La Prensa, El Siglo, La Estrella, Critica, and Telemetro combined covering upwards of 80 percent of Panamanian news readers,15) they can provide a useful metric for gauging the relative interest that the country’s citizens have for a given topic.

Of the aforementioned sources, La Prensa has the most consistent and in-depth coverage of the potential ramifications of the opening of the Arctic Ocean. Over the past two decades, La Prensa has published approximately nine articles discussing the possibility of Arctic maritime shipping aided by rising temperatures – a high number compared to its competitors. Much of this is the work of one author, Wilfredo Jordan, whose articles in 201816) and 201917) set the benchmark for reporting regarding a Panamanian perspective on the Arctic Ocean, as he examines both Panama’s unpreparedness for competing with Arctic shipping and the difficulties that shipping through the Arctic entails.

La Estrella, with a readership almost comparable to La Prensa, has published fewer than half a dozen articles addressing the melting of Arctic ice, and three date back more than a decade.18) Critica has only published a single article19) discussing Arctic shipping, and it is little more than a photo gallery. Finally, Panama America and Telemetro have essentially published zero analysis of the threat posed to Panama by Arctic shipping, offering only a handful of republished articles.

The small number of articles published by Panamanian news agencies discussing the possibility and ramifications of Arctic shipping is put into greater perspective when compared to the response to other challenges facing the Panama Canal. The clearest example is the proposed Nicaragua Canal, an ambitious project now left defunct in the face of serious domestic opposition, environmental concerns, and shaky Chinese investment.20) Nevertheless, the faltering Nicaraguan project managed to capture Panamanian attention to a far greater extent than the looming danger of melting ice. If combined over the past two decades, then the number of articles about the Nicaragua Canal published by these sources reaches around 332, compared to a meagre 16 for Arctic shipping.

This is not to say that Panamanians are disinterested in the effects of climate change on the Canal, but their attention is focused more on immediate concerns rather than the distant impact of Arctic shipping. In recent years, discussions surrounding the possible impact of climate change in Panama have focused overwhelmingly on water levels for the Canal locks. Water levels in the two artificial lakes which comprise part of the Canal have consistently fallen in step with decreasing precipitation. The year 2019 set a record low, with precipitation levels 27 percent below average.21) Last year, lake depth dropped to below the 24m above-sea-level limit considered to be the minimum for the Canal to operate.22)

As for the Panamanian government, the ACP has published 13 statements and articles discussing its efforts to combat low water levels.23) The Panamanian Ministry of the Environment, alongside the ACP, has likewise held several conferences since 2019 discussing hydrological expansion and a new focus on water security.24) In stark contrast, neither organization published a single official article even mentioning the Arctic in that same timeframe, let alone the prospect of Arctic shipping. Only the Panamanian Maritime Authority (AMP) has obliquely stated its intent to prepare itself for the possibility of greater Arctic traffic, as it cooperated in a multinational exercise aimed at furthering implementation of the Polar Code, an international framework intended to regulate Arctic maritime travel.25) This is not to say, however, that the AMP has been exceptionally proactive on the threat of new Arctic shipping routes – their boldly-titled “Vision 2040” strategy, whose implementation will finish just ten years shy of the predicted disappearance of Arctic summer sea ice, mentions climate change only insofar as they hope to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.26)

Arctic Shipping’s Many Challenges

While these omissions of the Arctic in both the Panamanian media and in official government documents are jarring given the inevitability of polar melting, the lack of attention could also be confidence in the Canal’s superiority over its alternatives. Articles that have discussed the issue in detail, such as those from La Prensa, are decidedly skeptical of its feasibility, and they may have good reason to be. At face value, a shorter route with no tariffs is very enticing, but it fails to capture how capricious, complex, and costly maritime shipping in the Arctic truly is. The coverage and thickness of Arctic ice can vary dramatically from season to season. Constructing and crewing vessels capable of withstanding Arctic conditions is expensive and time-consuming. Most damningly, the sheer scale of investment needed to transform the Arctic passages into routes capable of competing with the Panama Canal belies the simplicity of just “letting it melt.”

Sea Ice Projections and Management

A valid question exists regarding the extent to which projections of Arctic melting are accurate. It is worth noting that transits through the Northwest Passage have actually decreased in recent years – 2019 saw 27 ships cross, down from the 2017 peak of 31. In 2018, colder conditions and greater quantities of thicker ice proved so dangerous that a mere five ships made successful transits.27) The accessibility of the Northwest Passage is key, as a mid-voyage switch to the longer Northeast Passage would provide no time savings over simply taking the Panama Canal.28) By contrast, the slowest month of 2019 for the Panama Canal, February, saw 962 transits out of a yearly total of 12,281.29) While the Arctic may be warming, it has not been defanged. The year 2050 is a long way off, and vessels will still have to contend with difficult conditions made even more unpredictable by climate change. As such, even though the Nordic Orion crossed the Northwest Passage unassisted in 2013, only a fraction of vessels currently afloat could likely manage a similar feat.

Building and Shipping to Arctic Standards

The immediacy of the threat posed to the Panama Canal is dependent on how quickly Arctic routes are deemed safe for non-specialist vessels. The Polar Code is an ongoing initiative by the International Maritime Organization to determine exactly that, chiefly by mandating several different degrees of Arctic preparedness for vessels, as well as regulating how they can operate in Arctic waters. These criteria include not only enhanced structural strength through double hulls and bottoms, but also alternative sources of fuel.30) Heavy fuel oil is a standard for maritime shipping due to its low cost, but attempts to ban it for Arctic use have led to a years-long struggle. As of 2020, it appears that a limited ban will come into effect, with exceptions made for vessels flying their own country’s flag and operating within their own national waters.31) These two requirements could drastically curtail the number of cargo vessels that even qualify to sail in the Arctic. “Free” transit through the Arctic becomes a less enticing prospect when it requires modern (or modernized) vessels, crew training, and a switch to much costlier fuel. These issues only scratch the surface of the costs needed to turn the Arctic into a safe and profitable shipping lane.

Given the endurance and unpredictability of Arctic ice even as it disappears, any future shipping in the region will likely have to rely at least in part on icebreakers. However, the past decade has demonstrated how difficult amassing and maintaining a fleet of modern icebreakers can be. Though this is a hurdle which affects all nations operating in the Arctic, the example of Russia is especially illustrative, as their ambitious, nuclear-powered LK60Ya series has run into endless technical and budgetary issues despite Russia’s long experience with Arctic sailing. Designed in 2012 and commissioned for launch in 2017, the next generation Russian icebreaker Arktika entered 2020 with yet another crippling failure of its engines. At a staggering price of €539 million per vessel, Arktika and her two sisters are intended to be the cornerstone of the Russian plan to see 80 million long tons of shipping in the Arctic Ocean by 2024.32) This Russian plan itself poses difficulties for potential commercial traffic in the Arctic, as rising tensions between Russia and the US have prompted both militarization and territorial spats in the Arctic Circle.33)

Developing the Far North

Finally, the last and seemingly greatest obstacle to an Arctic overthrow of the Panama Canal’s dominance is its remoteness and the difficulty inherent in developing the region. As early as 2005, the US Arctic Research Commission noted that even with melting ice, a lack of natural harbours, transport or commercial infrastructure, and especially bathymetric and topographic data of possible routes would seriously hamper large-scale trade through the region.34) It is easy to say that development in the Arctic would be unnecessary when the ultimate destination of goods flowing through the North is Europe or the American East Coast, but this fails to consider the importance of the “Pendulum Model” of maritime shipping, where vessels make several stops along their journeys to pick up and drop off cargo.35) This model requires not only significant port infrastructure, but also large enough markets to make such deliveries profitable – two things the Arctic notably lacks, and which the ACP recognizes as a benefit for the Canal.36) The Canadian North, where much of the Northwest Passage flows, has only one single developed deepwater port in Churchill, Manitoba, and it not only lacks rail connections to the rest of Canada,37), but melting permafrost puts both existing structures and future development on dangerous ground.38)

Large scale development of the Arctic for shipping is further hampered by the concerns of Indigenous groups for the effects this could have on their land and water. Though the Polar Code is attempting to limit possible environmental damage, its seeming failure to stop the use of heavy fuel oil bodes ill for how effective it can be in minimizing pollution. Nevertheless, the Inuit Circumpolar Council has not hesitated to assert its land claims in the face of both foreign and domestic encroachment.39) This is especially relevant as melting ice puts ever greater pressure on Indigenous communities’ food security and vital ice roads, which are already threatened by climate change.40)

Conclusion

The onward march of climate change seems unstoppable, and Panama, like many other small nations, can do little but endure its consequences. The melting of Arctic ice so many thousands of kilometres away could, depending on circumstances completely beyond Panama’s control, either doom the Canal to irrelevance or scarcely affect it at all. Both distance and unpredictability likely play a role for the Arctic’s obscurity in Panamanian discourse. While the Arctic and Northwest Passage in particular may look like a shorter trip for lucrative US East Coast – Asia shipping, it belies the enormous difficulties inherent in developing the Arctic into a viable shipping lane. The Panama Canal, and Panamanians themselves, can at least be comforted in the knowledge that it will take decades of costly investment and political wrangling for the Canal to be threatened in a substantial manner.

Adrian Piecyk is a graduate of the University of Toronto, holding a Masters degree in Eastern European and Russian Affairs as well as a Bachelors of History. He can be reached over email or followed on Instagram.

See TAI article.