Arctic shortcut beckons shippers as ice thaws

Arctic shortcut beckons shippers as ice thaws

For hundreds of years, mariners have dreamed of an Arctic shortcut that would allow them to speed trade between Asia and the West. Two German ships are poised to complete that transit for the first time, aided by the retreat of Arctic ice that scientists have linked to global warming.

The ships started their voyage in South Korea in late July and will begin the last leg of the trip this week, leaving a Siberian port for Rotterdam in the Netherlands carrying 3,500 tonnes of construction materials.

Russian ships have long moved goods along the country’s sprawling Arctic coastline. And two tankers, one Finnish and the other Latvian, hauled fuel between Russian ports using the route, which is variously called the Northern Sea Route or the Northeast Passage.
But the Russians hope that the transit of the German ships will inaugurate the passage as a reliable shipping route, and that the combination of the melting ice and the economic benefits of the shortcut will eventually make the Arctic passage a summer competitor with the Suez Canal.

“It is global warming that enables us to think about using that route,” Verena Beckhusen, a spokeswoman for the shipping company, the Beluga Group of Bremen, Germany, said.

Lawson W Brigham, University of Fairbanks, who led the writing of an international report on Arctic commerce, the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment, confirmed that 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, 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 who is a former Coast Guard icebreaker captain.

A process

But he also said it would be a long while before Arctic shipping routes took business from the Suez or Panama Canal.
Company officials said the unloading in Siberia of 44 components for a Russian power plant should be completed by Saturday, after which the ships will head to Rotterdam to deliver the rest of the cargo.

Sheets of pack ice still descend in hundred-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 route is rarely wholly impassable these days, according to the Russian transport ministry.

The pair of ice-hardened, 12,700-tonne ships, the Beluga Fraternity and Beluga Foresight, were accompanied for most 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 northernmost tip of Siberia, the Vilkitsky Strait, ice covered about half the sea.

“Apart from the stress, it is an economically and ecologically beneficial shortcut between Europe and Asia,” said Valery Durov, captain of the Beluga Foresight. “In such voyages, the advantage of fewer miles can outweigh delays waiting for clear water.”
In 1553, the 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, Russian maritime experts say.
Still, the region was often so socked in with ice even in summer as to be impassable, 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 summers 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 been increasingly tested as well, but has not so far become a reliable commercial route, with transit limited mainly to military or research craft.

Saving fuel

Though the window for sailing the route north of Russia is only a few weeks a year, it trims days to weeks off trips and saves fuel. For example, 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.
Neils Stolberg, president, Beluga Group, said that 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 tonnes 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,” Stolberg said.
The Russian government technically opened the Northeast Passage for international vessels after the breakup of the Soviet Union, but no commercial cargo carriers have until now 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 like navigation beacons, he said.

The passage requires a permit because it crosses Russian territorial waters. Aleksandr N 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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