News / Europe

Russia Hopes Climate Change Maximizes Arctic Shipping

A general view shows Chinese ice breaker ship 'Xuelong' - also called 'Snow Dragon' - docking at Tianjin, November 3, 2011.A general view shows Chinese ice breaker ship 'Xuelong' - also called 'Snow Dragon' - docking at Tianjin, November 3, 2011.
x
A general view shows Chinese ice breaker ship 'Xuelong' - also called 'Snow Dragon' - docking at Tianjin, November 3, 2011.
A general view shows Chinese ice breaker ship 'Xuelong' - also called 'Snow Dragon' - docking at Tianjin, November 3, 2011.
James Brooke
Americans may have seen the downside of climate change when Hurricane Sandy bashed into New Jersey and New York City in October. Some scientists say melting Arctic ice helped to create the largest Atlantic hurricane on record.

Russians and Chinese, however, see an upside to ice melting in the Arctic.

On Wednesday, Russia’s Arctic summer shipping season closed, recording record ship transits and record cargo volumes. There were 47 crossings by ships between Asia and Europe - almost 12 times the four recorded in 2010.

Arctic ice recedes

Melting Arctic ice - and changing attitudes - made the difference.

In September, American satellites recorded the greatest shrinkage of Arctic ice since monitoring started 33 years ago. This summer, ice retreated to 3.4 million square kilometers - about half the average levels recorded in the 1980s and 1990s. The surveys are made by the National Snow and Ice Data Center at University of Colorado Boulder

With more open water, U.S. experts predict that cargo volumes will increase this decade by more than 50 times from this year’s level. For northern Europe, the Russian Arctic route can cut 7,000 kilometers off the standard trip to Asia through Egypt’s Suez Canal.

Russian pride in the Arctic is so high that there is a movement afoot in Moscow to rename the waters off Russia’s 7,000 kilometer shoreline: the Sea of Russia.

Shipping gains

China is taking notice, sending its first ship ever through Russia’s Arctic passage. The icebreaker Snow Dragon sailed from China to Iceland and back, docking in Shanghai in September.

Sergey Balmasov, a Russian who runs the Arctic Logistics Information Office in Kirkenes, northern Norway, said open water and a five-month season allowed several cargo ships to make round trip runs across the top of Russia this summer. Two ships found cargo for a return trip, taking jet fuel from South Korea to Finland.

“The biggest obstacle is the lack of the ships, and also the lack of the cargoes available to be transported,” Balmasov said.

About half of the cargoes were petroleum products, including the first passage of liquefied natural gas, on a voyage from Norway to Japan. The rest was largely coal and iron ore for the factories of Asia.

Environmental concerns

Ivan Blokov, a campaign director for Greenpeace Russia, warned that oil tankers threaten the fragile ecology of the Arctic.

“Transporting oil or any other dangerous substance through the Northern Route should be excluded with 100 percent guarantee,” he said in Moscow. “Because you can never be sure there will be no accident.”

Blokov recently visited the harbor in Alaska where the Exxon Valdez tanker spilled an estimated half-a-million barrels of oil in 1989. He said it took 15 years and billions of dollars to clean it up.

Greenpeace commissioned a study of what would happen if there is a similar spill in Russia’s Arctic.

“The conclusion of the scientists is that maximum 10 percent of the spilled oil can be collected, and that a few thousands of kilometers of Arctic shore can be polluted,” said Bokov.

Balmasov, the advocate of Russia’s Northern Sea Route, said world shipping rules have improved dramatically in the nearly quarter century since oil gushed from the Valdez, a single-hulled tanker.

‘The general approach is not to have any accidents at all,” he said. “Russia now has very strict regulations in terms of environment. All ships must be double bottom.”

Being ready

He added that international insurance companies charge about the same amount for a large ice-class vessel to make a summer passage through Russia’s Arctic as they do for vessels going through the Suez Canal and into the pirate-infested waters off East Africa.

Everyone agrees that captains venturing into Arctic waters should be prepared for anything.

Last August, American author Hampton Sides traveled on a tour boat through the Bering Strait and north into what should have been the open waters of the Russian Arctic.

 “We were smashing through ice fields,” Sides recounted from his home in the American state of New Mexico. “The ship was shuddering and ground to a halt several times. We had pick our way through other leads in the ice to get where we were going.”

Unexpected, high winds had pushed ice to an area where it was not supposed to be. Sides said the Russian ship captain had many years of experience in the high north.

 “He had been in the Arctic many times,” said Sides. “He was surprised, and quite worried. You could see the worry on his face. This was unexpected.”

Tourists were disappointed. They had spent thousands of dollars to see polar bears on Russia’s Wrangel Island.

“For many years, because there has been no ice, the polar bears have been going there in large, large numbers,” said Sides. “And this particular summer we couldn’t find any polar bears on the island, because they were out on the ice, where they really want to be.”

A lesson of climate change in Russia’s Arctic may be: expect the unexpected.

You May Like

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video VOA EXCLUSIVE: US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs countermeasure at UN More

UN Report Exposes Widespread Boko Haram Atrocities

Damning report graphically details pattern of vicious, widespread atrocities committed by Islamist militants More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prisoni
X
Heather Murdock
July 01, 2015 8:59 PM
As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Nubians in Kenya Face Land Challenges

East Africa's ethnic Nubians have a rich cultural history that dates back thousands of years, but in Kenya they are facing hardships, including the loss of lands they have lived on for generations. They say the government has reneged on its pledge to award them title deeds for the plots. VOA's Lenny Ruvaga reports.
Video

Video Military Experts Question New Russian Tank Capabilities

Russia has been showing off its new tank design – the Armata T-14. Designers claim it is 20 years ahead of current Western designs - and driving it feels like playing a computer game. But military analysts question those assertions, and warn the cost could be too heavy a burden for Russia’s struggling economy. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs