Global warming fulfils icy dream
FOR hundreds of years, mariners have dreamed of navigating a shortcut through the Arctic that would speed trade between Asia and the West.
But now, as global warming shrinks the polar ice, two ships are poised to complete the journey for the first time. The German vessels begin the last leg of their voyage this week, leaving a Siberian port for Rotterdam in the Netherlands, having set off from South Korea in late July.
Russians now hope the transit of the German ships, and the combination of melting ice and the economic benefits of the shortcut will lead to the Arctic passage – thousands of miles shorter than various southerly routes – becoming a summer competitor to the Suez Canal. The route is known as the Northeast Passage or Northern Sea Route.
Verena Beckhusen, a spokeswoman for shipping company the Beluga Group of Bremen, Germany, said: "It is global warming that enables us to think about using that route."
Lawson W Brigham, a professor of geography who led the writing of an international report on Arctic commerce, confirmed the passage of the two German ships appeared to be the first true commercial transit of the entire Northeast Passage from Asia to the West.
He credited Beluga for taking on both the summertime Arctic waters, which still pose threats despite the recent sea-ice retreats, and Russian red tape, which is a maze of permits and regulations.
"This may be as much of a test run for the bureaucracy as for the ice," said Brigham, an oceanographer and former coastguard icebreaker captain.
Sheets of pack ice still descend in 100-mile-long tongues off the northern ice cap, and glaciers on the archipelagos off the coast shed icebergs that now drift more dangerously in the otherwise ice-free summer seas, but the Russian transport ministry says the route is rarely wholly impassable these days.
The two ice-hardened 12,700-ton ships, the Beluga Fraternity and Beluga Foresight, are carrying 3,500 tons of construction materials and have been accompanied for much of the trip so far by one or two Russian nuclear icebreakers as a precaution, although they encountered only scattered small floes.
At the most perilous leg of the journey, the passage around the Vilkitsky Strait – the northernmost tip of Siberia – ice covered about half the sea.
Valery Durov, captain of the Beluga Foresight, said: "Apart from the stress, it is an economically and ecologically beneficial shortcut between Europe and Asia. In such voyages the advantage of fewer miles can outweigh delays waiting for clear water."
In 1553 British explorer Hugh Willoughby died with his crew while trying to navigate the route in hopes of finding a path from the West to Asia.
In the early 1700s, a Danish-born Russian explorer, Vitus Bering, pushed along the coastline on sleds on a journey to Alaska. It was not until 1914 that a Russian admiral, Boris Vilkitsky, mapped the eponymous strait separating Asia from the Severnaya Zemlya archipelago at the northernmost point of the route.
Still, the region was often too frozen to be passable, even with nuclear icebreakers as escorts. In 1983 a Russian ship was crushed in an ice floe west of Alaska in the middle of the summer.
As the Arctic has warmed and sea ice in summer has retreated from coasts, countries and companies have become ever more focused on the resources, trade routes and security issues that are surfacing in what was once an ice-locked backwater.
The Northwest Passage, a meandering set of channels through Canada's Arctic, has also been increasingly tested, but has yet to become a reliable commercial route.
Though the window for sailing the route north of Russia is only a few weeks a year, it can trim weeks off trips and saves fuel. The voyage from Yokohama, Japan, to Rotterdam via the Northeast Passage is about 4,450 miles shorter than the currently preferred route through the Suez Canal, according to the Russian ministry of transport.
Beluga Group president Neils Stolberg said the Arctic transit was not an experiment but the beginning of opening the route to outside traffic.
He said his company already had new contracts for taking 1,000 tons of goods from Asia to Siberia next summer.
"We are all very proud and delighted to be the first Western shipping company which has successfully transited the legendary Northeast Passage and delivered the sensitive cargo safely through this extraordinarily demanding sea area," he said.
The Russian government technically opened the Northeast Passage for international vessels after the break-up of the Soviet Union, but until now no commercial cargo carriers have ventured all the way across.
Nikolai A Monko, the head of the Northern Sea Route Administration in the Russian transport ministry, said the policy now was to promote the route. The ministry, he said, is considering lowering the flat fee charged for icebreaker escort and rescue if needed.
The goal, in part, is to generate a revenue stream for the country's six-vessel nuclear icebreaker fleet that escorts convoys through the passage, and to pay for fixed costs such as navigation beacons, he said.
The passage requires a permit because it crosses Russian territorial waters.
Aleksandr Olshevsky, a retired captain of the Taimyr icebreaker and now director of the Federal Agency for Marine and River Transport, said he and others in the agency were in favour of lowering the fees as a means to increase traffic and generate revenue for maintaining the icebreakers, as well as buoys and other navigational aids.
"The ice conditions were far more severe 20 years ago," he said.
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Friday 24 May 2013
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