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.
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

Video Russia’s Syrian Escalation Tests Obama’s Crisis Response

Critics once again question whether president has been slow to act on Syrian conflict, thus creating opening for powers like Russia More

Ancient African DNA Shows Mass Migration Back Into Africa

First genetic analysis of ancient human remains in Africa suggests massive migration from north around time of Egyptian empire More

NASA: Pluto Has Blue Sky

New photos also reveal the presence of water ice More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugeesi
Henry Ridgwell
October 08, 2015 8:02 PM
Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugees

Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Iraqi-Kurdish Teachers Vow to Continue Protest

Sixteen people were injured when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse teachers and other public employees who took to the streets in Iraq’s Kurdish north, demanding their salaries from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). VOA’s Dilshad Anwar, in Sulaimaniya, caught up with protesting teachers who say they have not been paid for three months. Parke Brewer narrates his report.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

VOA Blogs