SALEKHARD, RUSSIA —
For centuries, polar bears have enjoyed Arctic waters in isolation. But now, they are getting company in the summer.
Last summer, China sent its first icebreaker, the Snow Dragon, over the top of Russia, from Shanghai to Iceland.
This summer, the Yong Sheng, a freighter operated by China's COSCO shipping company, became the first Chinese merchant vessel to take the shortcut. It sailed from Shanghai to Rotterdam, cutting two weeks off the usual route, through Egypt’s Suez Canal.
Satellite photos by the U.S. space agency, NASA, show that the white Arctic ice around the North Pole shrinks every summer. It is replaced by more and more open water, which appears black in the photos.
Even Russian President Vladimir Putin agrees with the American scientists.
"It is absolutely clear now that the climate is changing. Everyone is talking about this,” he told an Arctic Forum held here recently. “It is clear now that the northern latitudes can be open for shipping for 100 days or perhaps 150 days, and that new regions are opening up for economic activity."
While Russia invests in more icebreakers, Arctic experts gathered at the forum say they see growing opportunities for trade.
Felix Tschudi, chairman of a Norwegian shipping company, has shipped iron ore from northern Norway to China.
“We believe that the potential of the Northern Sea Route is large,” said Tschudi, a promoter of the route. “It will not be like an explosion. In 2010, there were four ships using the transit route. In 2011, there were 34. And in 2012 there were 46. This year we expect around 50 ships.”
Lawson Brigham was the captain of a United States Coast Guard icebreaker based in Alaska.
"Really, we're looking at a seasonal supplement to the Suez Canal, carrying natural resources,” he said. “We're not going to retool the global container ship traffic.”
Indigenous leaders and environmentalists worry about the potential for an oil spill in the fragile environment of the high north.
Aqqaluk Lynge, from Greenland, is chairman of the Inuit Circumpolar Council.
“You cannot use the Arctic as a laboratory. It's not a laboratory. The Arctic Ocean is not the last frontier. It's our home. People have to remember that people live there,” he said at the conference. “We are very concerned about the tourist liners' travel routes up to east Greenland and other parts of Greenland because there's simply no rescue possibility in those areas.”
But his neighbor Olafur Grimsson, the president of Iceland, welcomes Chinese ships.
He told forum attendees: "Next month the CEO of COSCO, the largest shipping company in China, will explain at the new Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik how China is preparing for a new era in global shipping when the melting of the Arctic sea-ice will connect Asia in a new way to America and Europe.”
What may be bad for polar bears, may be good for shipping between China and Europe.