The quest for a sea passage across the Arctic Ocean, linking Europe to the Far East, began with the Age of Commerce in the 15th century, when great seafaring European powers emerged seeking trade routes to the Orient. Over the ensuing centuries the Arctic passage yielded itself gradually, as the objectives of its pioneers shifted from whaling and sealing to prospecting for precious metals and other natural resources, and later to scientific exploration. As understanding of this vast, forbidding region unfolded, explorers deepened their knowledge of the geographical problems of the Arctic Ocean and its natural conditions.
One of the most vital sea routes between the Far East and Europe is the Southern Sea Route, which threads through the Straits of Malacca and across the Indian Ocean to pass through the Suez Canal. A northern passage, crossing the Bering Sea into the Barents Sea of Russia's far north and hugging Russia's Arctic shore, would constitute a mere 60% of the distance of its southern counterpart. Given the intense competition prevailing in the world shipping market, the potential economic benefits of exploiting this Northern Sea Route (NSR) would be enormous. The irresistible attraction of such a route drives this age-old quest into the present day.
The obstacles, however, are daunting. The natural environment of the Arctic Ocean is too hostile for freighters without resort to sophisticated shipbuilding technology and extensive support systems. Without the remarkable advances in shipbuilding and navigation of recent years, commercial exploitation of this route would be inconceivable. The first task for prospective Arctic seafarers, then, is to gain an accurate picture of the North's forbidding natural environment. Once an accurate assessment is made, the next task is develop technologies to design and construct ships capable of navigating the ice-covered seas and satellite-based systems to provide current information on ice conditions, and to put into effect the technological, political and legal framework needed to support NSR shipping.
For many years, Russia's northern seas were off limits to the outside world. With the advent of perestroika in Russia, however, interest in opening up the polar ocean as an international shipping zone has been rekindled, spurring impressive strides in the development of requisite technologies. Today, for the first time, tangible preparations are under way to link Europe and the Far East with the NSR as a viable shipping lane.
Another powerful draw for Arctic shipping is the region's vast energy resources. In a world where environmental issues are increasingly pressing and hold a persistently high public profile, demand is growing for the development of new sources of energy to satisfy the world's prodigious thirst for energy, driving resource developers into ever more inhospitable corners of the earth, including the polar regions. Also attracting intense interest is Russia's rich trove of energy resources. Already, the development of oil and gas fields is under way in such remote places as the Barents Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk around Sakhalin Island. Moreover, the influence and importance of the Arctic region on global climate, weather and ecosystem of the earth is widely recognized. An urgent priority in this project is the conquest of the various natural conditions that obstruct academic surveying and research, so that valuable and significant data can be collected to contribute to our knowledge of this vast region.
The authors believe that, when these recent polar initiatives are taken into account, the technological, economic and political case for development of the NSR as a shipping route is strong and credible. To support the informed examination of Japan's energy policy for the 21st century and shipping trends, a clear accounting of the conditions required to blaze this new trail in maritime trade is urgently needed.
To that end, in 1993 the Ship & Ocean Foundation (SOF) gained the support of The Nippon Foundation to participate in the launch of INSROP. This project is the brainchild of three national agencies: the SOF in Japan, the Fridtjof Nansen Institute (FNI) in Norway and the Central Marine Research and Design Institute (CNIIMF) in Russia.