Skip to comments.Polar Thaw Opens Arctic Sea Route (Global Warming)
Posted on 03/03/2004 5:09:41 PM PST by blam
Polar thaw opens Arctic sea route
By Julius Strauss in Murmansk
A fabled Arctic sea route which claimed the lives of countless sailors during the Age of Exploration looks set to be transformed into a busy shipping lane connecting Europe and Asia.
Shipping experts say that as the polar ice recedes the notorious North-East Passage, which winds its way along Russia's frigid and barren northern coastline past Siberia, could come to rival the Suez Canal as a global trade route.
Scientists say the Arctic icecap has been rapidly thawing, arguably due to global warming, and is shrinking at the rate of about three per cent a decade. The ice is half as thick as it was 50 years ago.
On present calculations, the North-East Passage could be open to year-round commercial shipping within a decade, making it a viable economic alternative to the southern route through Suez, which is much longer.
Russia is also shedding some of its Cold War reluctance to allow foreigners to use its Arctic waters and officials are talking of upgrading neglected facilities along the forgotten northern coastline.
The result may be a seismic shift in global shipping patterns that have changed little since the opening of the Suez and Panama canals a century ago.
Douglas Brubaker, an expert with the Fridtjof Nansens Institute in Norway, said: "With the ice reduction, the third you can save off distances and the security implications of not having to use Suez, the northern route has a lot going for it."
The North-East Passage has offered the possibility of a short cut for shipping between Europe and Asia for hundreds of years. Its mapping was once considered a global priority.
The first serious attempts at finding a navigable path through the ice were made by English and Dutch sailors in the 16th Century. They were spurred by the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans, who closed the spice routes between Europe and the Far East.
Willem Barents led a team of Dutch sailors through the Arctic waters, but they died after becoming trapped in the ice.
Henry Hudson also made attempts in 1607 and 1608, but was forced back by icebergs. In 1648 a Cossack named Semyon Dezhnyov, seeking furs, completed most of the passage. Vitus Bering, a Danish officer serving in the Russian navy, finally passed through the straits that would come to bear his name.
During those pioneering voyages hundreds of sailors died of scurvy or cold and conditions on board were so terrible that at one point the tsar withdrew his backing.
Despite the losses, the full potential of the route was never realised. When the Suez Canal was completed in 1869 the importance of the North-East Passage faded.
During the 20th century the entire Soviet Arctic region became a backwater, sealed behind the Iron Curtain.
Even after the fall of the Soviet Union, western shipping agents continued to shun the passage because of the unpredictable ice, labyrinthine Russian bureaucracy and aggressive posturing by the Red Army.
Now that could all be about to change. Scientists predict that if present weather patterns continue the entire stretch could be ice-free within a century.
The economics are in the northern route's favour. A journey through the North-East Passage from Europe to Japan is 7,000 nautical miles long and takes 22 days. A comparative trip through the Suez canal is 11,000 nautical miles and takes 35 days.
In Murmansk, a frigid, Soviet-built town of 500,000 perched on the Barents Sea coast, talk of a new era of prosperity has energised the local shipping industry. The fleet of Soviet nuclear ice-breakers is being overhauled.
Russian agents envisage a flood of new contracts for their ice-breakers, repair shops and specialists and tens of thousands of new jobs ashore supporting convoys moving along the coast.
Alexander Medvedev, the director of the Murmansk Shipping Company, said: "Companies don't want to invest in ice-class vessels if they can ship only three or four months of the year.
"When we can ship all the year round the tonnage will increase rapidly." But some experts say there are still obstacles to cross before the centuries-old dream of a commercial trade route along the North-East Passage becomes reality.
Insurance companies still charge premiums two or three times higher than for ships on the Suez route and insist they are built with hugely expensive ice-class hulls. Norwegian coastal authorities are expected to demand the same.
Nor have the Russians helped their case by demanding unrealistically high transit fees even as they were forced to admit to insurers that up to 20 per cent of their ships had been damaged while negotiating the passage.
It'll never completely thaw at that rate.
God is on our side Sen Kerry!