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New Sea Route between Asia and Europe

29/09/2012 | By More

Sea Route in the Arctic Ocean between Asia and Europe has become ever more prominent

The melting of ice in the Arctic Ocean will offer a short-cut for China’s commercial fleet to reach Europe and North America after Shanghai-based icebreaker Xue Long, or Snow Dragon, tried a new Sea Route to the North Pole on its fifth expedition to the Arctic, Shanghai Daily reports.

Sea Route

From right: Scientists Egill Thor Nielsson, Antoine Bouvet and Ingibjörg Jónsdóttir are warmly welcomed after China’s icebreaker Xue Long, or Snow Dragon, returned to Shanghai after a 93-day expedition to collect data and do experiments related to climate change, the marine environment, natural resources and economic development. The ship had 119 scientists, including four foreign scientists, on board. A second icebreaker will come into operation in 2014. Photo by Wang Rongjiang

The ship with 119 scientists including four foreign scientists and one from Taiwan on board returned to Shanghai yesterday, September 28., after a 93-day exploration to collect data in the Northern Sea Route and do experiments on climate change, marine environment and Arctic natural resources and economic development.

“The sea ice melting, though imposing threats to wildlife living in the North Pole like polar bears and the global climate, offers a great opportunity for commercial route development of the Northern Sea Route,” said Weng Lixin, vice director of the Polar Research Institute of China. “If traveling along the Northern Sea Route close to the North Pole, the distance between Shanghai and Hamburg in Germany will be shortened by one third. It brings much economic profits for China.”

Officials also released the details of a second icebreaker, for which development is running smoothly.

“Xue Long has limited abilities for ice-breaking, which meant we failed to reach the 90 degree north latitude due to the complexity of sea ice there during this expedition,” said Chen Hongxia, assistant of the expedition team’s chief scientist. “Xue Long can break ice up to 1.1 meters in depth, while the new ship will be able to break ice 1.5 meters in depth. Such ice-breaking ability is similar to icebreakers of western countries.”

The Northern Sea Route traffic

Over the last few weeks the number of vessels passing through the new Northern Sea Route (NSR), connecting Europe and Asia, has increased significantly in comparison to the beginning of the year, Barents Observer writes.

According to the data provided by Rosatomflot, the summer season 2012 is in full swing along the new Northern Sea Route, with a total of transported cargo amounting to 749,706 tons, which is close to last year’s record of 820,789 tons.

During the last two weeks 22 vessels have taken the Northern Sea Route, 13 from the west to the east and nine in the opposite direction. The pioneers of this year’s summer season that took the Northern Sea Route were tankers “Indigo” and “Varzuga” JSC “Murmansk Shipping Company” carrying a cargo of diesel fuel.

Navigating through the Arctic waters via the Northern Sea Route has become ever more prominent over the recent period since the Sea Route is said to reduce the voyage of shipping companied for almost 40 percent in comparison to the ones which includes passing through the Panama or Suez canals.

In July the average time spent on the Northern Sea Route, was 11 days, while in August it did not exceed 9 days with average speed of caravans in the latter equaling to 12 knots.

Sea Route

This map shows the route by the Chinese icebreaker Xuelong with 119 international scientists on broad, of their 93-day Arctic expedtion, to collect data on climate change marine environment and Arctic natural resources. Click on the map to get a bigger picture.

The Northern Sea Route was opened by receding ice in 2005 but was closed by 2007. The amount of polar ice had receded to 2005 levels in August 2008. In late August 2008, it was reported that images from the NASA Aqua satellite had revealed that the last ice blockage of the Northern Sea Route in the Laptev Sea had melted. This would have been the first time since satellite records began that both the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route had been open simultaneously. However, other scientists suggested that the satellite images may have been misread and that the sea route was not yet passable.

In 2009, the Bremen-based Beluga Group claimed they were the first Western company to attempt to cross the Northern Sea Route for shipping without assistance from icebreakers, cutting 4000 nautical miles off the journey between Ulsan, Korea and Rotterdam. The voyage was widely covered and sometimes incorrectly said to be the first time when non-Russian ships make the transit. In 1997, a Finnish oil tanker, Uikku, sailed the length of the Northern Sea Route from Murmansk to the Bering Strait, becoming the first Western ship to complete the voyage.

However, the new (2008) ice-strengthened heavy lift vessels Beluga Fraternity and Beluga Foresight commenced an East-to-West passage of the Northern Sea Route in August 2009 as part of a small convoy escorted by the Russian nuclear icebreaker NS 50 Let Pobedy, westward through the Bering, Sannikov, and Vilkitskiy Straits. The two vessels embarked Russian ice pilots for the voyage to the western Siberian port of Novyy, in the Yamburg region in the delta of the Ob River. The ships arrived at Novvy on 7 September, discharged their cargo to barges and departed on 12 September, bound for the Kara Gates and Rotterdam. They were the first non-Russian commercial vessels to complete this journey, but not without Russian assistance. The captain of the Beluga Foresight, Valeriy Durov, described the achievement as “…great news for our industry.” The president of Beluga Shipping claimed the voyage saved each vessel about 300,000 euros, compared to the normal Korea-to-Rotterdam Sea Route by way of the Suez Canal. The company did not disclose how much they paid for the escort service and the Russian pilots. An 18 September 2009 press release stated that the company is already planning for six vessels to make Arctic deliveries in 2010. It is not clear that this plan was followed up on.

In 2009, the first two international commercial cargo vessels traveled north of Russia between Europe and Asia by this new Northern Sea Route. In 2011, 18 ships have made the now mostly ice-free crossing Sea Route. In 2011, 34 ships made the passage up from a total of 6 ships in 2010.

Please view an interview to Jon Edvard Sundnes, CEO of the Tschudi Shipping Company, about the new Northern Sea Route.


Melting Sea Ice on the Northern Sea Route: Bad For Polar Bears, Good For China

The Xue Long expedition of the Northern Sea Route marks China’s first successful attempt to reach the Atlantic from the Pacific via the Arctic Ocean, and highlights the country’s growing interest in the region, believed to be rich in oil and natural gas reserves as we have seen of the China’s newly  investment in country as Greenland and investments plans in Iceland. Seasonal shipping lanes through the Arctic and Northern Sea Route provide a shorter route to the Atlantic than the Southern Sea Route through the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal.

Warming oceans are opening that sea route up to greater exploitation, and China wants to be at the forefront of the race to be a relevant player in the Arctic.

While the melting sea ice in the Arctic as open the Northern Sea Route has presented new economic opportunities for countries like China, it is a dire warning sign of the extensive environmental impact of climate change, which the international scientific community amid overwhelming consensus has determined is caused by human activity, particularly the emission of greenhouse gases.

China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, overtaking the U.S. in 2007. With a population of over 1.3 billion, the rapidly industrializing nation is increasingly consuming more fossil fuels to meet growing demands for energy to power cars, produce food and build infrastructure.

According to scientists at the University of Colorado’s National Snow and Ice Data Center and Nasa, Arctic sea ice of the Northern Sea Route, which reaches its lowest levels typically around September, has shrunk to an area of 1.58 million square miles, the smallest it’s ever been since satellite measurements began in 1979.

The melting of Arctic sea ice of the Northern Sea Route has been devastating to the livelihoods of indigenous peoples in the polar region, who depend on ice for hunting seal populations that gather around it. This has similarly had a negative impact on polar bears, that also hunt seal.

The broader implications for the environment are rising sea levels that threaten small island nations and densely populated coastal regions, as well as more intense storm systems, more frequent droughts and the overall disruption of multiple ecosystems throughout the globe, all of which negatively affect global food and freshwater supplies.

There has been little consensus among global powers on how to best combat climate change. Agreements to meaningfully curb carbon emissions are merely paid lip service at global summits, while consumption of fossil fuels continues unabated and the development of renewable energy sources is consistently hindered by the politically influential lobbying of the oil and natural gas industries.

While China is making substantial investments in renewable energies, it is not willing to cut back on fossil fuels in a way that would put it at a disadvantage in the global economy.

Meanwhile, as the Arctic sea ice dwindles of the Northern Sea Route, there is only more temptation to explore newly accessible regions that are potential sources of oil and natural gas, the extraction and consumption of which will only further accelerate the process of global warming.

If Europe and China start cooperating effectively, there is no longer any excuse for other nations not to join in a scientific cooperation of the global warming. In that sense, strong cooperation on the ice-dependent world, the Arctic and a open way for the Northern Sea Route, could be a wake-up call for everybody else; a wake-up call which is urgently needed because we only have a few decades until it will be too late. This is as an indication that there is still hope for all of us, the people of Planet Earth so our children and grandchildren will not be able to blame us for having destroyed the environment.


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