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.
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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.

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