Arctic's Northwest Passage beckons China

Global warming is opening sea lanes over Russia that could take weeks off shipping times to Europe. But it's hardly clear sailing.

By Jason Notte Aug 13, 2013 8:17AM
File photo of a ship leaving Norway on route to China via the Arctic Northeast passage on September 4, 2010 (© Helge Sterk/AFP/Getty Images)If you had the choice of taking a shorter, potentially deadlier sea route that's open just a few months every year or a tried-and-true but longer rout that takes you through contested and, in some cases, pirate-filled waters, which would you take?

No, staying home isn't an option. In an attempt to avoid the circuitous route from China to Europe that runs through the Indian Ocean, Suez Canal and Mediterranean Sea, the Chinese cargo ship Yong Shen operated by Cosco Group is attempting the country's first-ever commercial trip through the Arctic's Northwest Passage over Russia.


The ship set sail on Aug. 9 from Dalian in northeast China and is headed for Rotterdam. Cosco believes the journey through the Bering Strait could shave as much as two weeks off the trip, from 48 to 35 days. The problem is that even with global warming opening it up a bit, the Northwest Passage is still a dicey proposition.


For starters, it's still a relatively recent development that few have dare tried. Russian authorities have granted 372 permits this year to ships intent on sailing all or some of the passage, compared with 46 last year and only four in 2010. That's fairly minute compared with the 17,000 ships that went through the Suez Canal last year alone and still may be a bit overzealous for a stretch of sea that still hasn't quite warmed up.


"Climate change is certainly opening new Arctic shipping routes," said Cameron Dueck, a Canadian author who sailed the Northwest Passage in 2009 and shared a bit of his story with The Financial Times. "But the most common routes through the (Arctic) continue to have ice even in the warmest years, meaning shipping companies will have to be selective and opportunistic in using them."


Valentin Davydants, the captain of Russia's Atomflot fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers, told the FT he estimates that by 2021, 15 metric tons of cargo will use the full route. That's still a slow trickle compared with the 929 metric tons that went through the Suez Canal in 2011.


The Northwest Passage may become a more viable option as melting sea ice eliminates icebreakers now required under Russian rules for all journeys. For China, it also means avoiding passage to the contested South China Sea, the Strait of Malacca and pirate-infested waters of the Indian Ocean.


That has given China considerable interest in the chilly North. It already claims to be a "near-Arctic state" and is pushing claims in the Northern Pacific and Arctic oceans. In May, Beijing secured "permanent observer" status at the Arctic Council, a group uniting the eight countries with territory in the polar region.


If the Northwest Passage does open soon, China is sending the message that it won't just be Russia's little stowaway along the advantageous new route.


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21Comments
Aug 13, 2013 9:38AM
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Because we know it is CRITICALLY IMPORTANT to keep shipping cheap knock-off crap to the single largest debt hole EVER... Europe.
Aug 13, 2013 12:17PM
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No worries - Barry will float the icebreakers to assist them until they have finished using the plans that he'll give them to build their own.
Aug 13, 2013 1:49PM
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    They mention 15 metric tons of cargo, and 929 metric tons, but I believe they meant to say 15 million metric tons, and 929 million metric tons.    

 

Aug 13, 2013 12:07PM
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I have always questioned the accuracy of Carbon Dating and or any other method of long term dating. No person can prove just how accurate or not time wise at some point. That hardly means we can't use current data to make reasonable assumptions going forward. Somethings like Deforestation, that really doesn't need much explaining. If you don't think CO2 is toxic, Lock yourself in the Garage and Crank up the Car. Each Volcanic eruption can have an different effect as each Eruption has a different consumption thus a different total effect.

Bottom line is this, if we screw up this planet, we darn sure don't have another one to run off to. Yet that matters very little to low information voters.

Aug 13, 2013 11:42AM
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This is another added benefit to those countries that see there is no benefit in cooperating with global countries in solving global warming.  For this reason, I think we all should turn on all the factories in full force.  Grow more trees so that trees are every where to absorb CO2.  The sun seems to get closer, isn't it?
Aug 13, 2013 12:01PM
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oh no global warming is a liberal myth. No matter how much evidence you tell a republican or show him it cant overcome cato institute programming. Increased co2 in the atmosphere retains more heat. Always
Aug 13, 2013 11:23AM
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Folks might not realize it but China will end up being Far Greener and leaders of selling others Green technology sooner than later. They see the writing on the wall in spite of the fact that they currently pollute the hell out of the Environment. Meanwhile the United States is getting left behind. Don't be shock if at some time in the near future, we are the biggest producers of Crude because everyone else has already switched to something else.
Aug 13, 2013 11:49AM
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"Meanwhile the United States is getting left behind."

 

Because the GOP won't relent on their pursuit to control everything in the universe. Even members of the Republican Moderate are seeing that "handwriting on the wall of inevitability" regarding the damage done by the Party of NO and need to wipe-out job blockades and human suppression. You're a dead political machine, GOP... your century of exploitation needs to be buried, alive, if that's your choice but nonetheless... buried.

Aug 13, 2013 11:27AM
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When you have a debate about climate change, some folks ought to first do some research concerning what effects the climate. It takes very little changes to move from our current Climate to a Ice Age. It's crystal clear what humans are doing to the environment. We can debate how much but to deny we are doing something is pure insanity.


Aug 13, 2013 10:51AM
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so-where are the nay sayers denying global warming is not real at now ?
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