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

    Wife of IS Leader Charged in Death of US Hostage

    Suspect allegedly admitted to being responsible for American aid worker Kayla Mueller, who officials say was sexually abused and ‘owned’ by one IS member

    Year of the Monkey Could Prove Economic Balancing Act for China

    China is up against a tricky situation on the financial front, facing the need to fight capital flight while also stopping a further slide of foreign currency reserves

    Runners Attempt 26-mile South Pole Marathon in Sub-Zero Temperatures

    How alluring is running 26.2 miles at 10,000 feet when it’s minus 31 Celsius out?

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    'No Means No' Program Targets Sexual Violence in Kenyai
    X
    February 08, 2016 4:30 PM
    The organizers of an initiative to reduce and stop rape in the informal settlements around Kenya's capital say their program is having marked success. Girls are taking self-defense classes while the boys are learning how to protect the girls and respect them. Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi.
    Video

    Video 'No Means No' Program Targets Sexual Violence in Kenya

    The organizers of an initiative to reduce and stop rape in the informal settlements around Kenya's capital say their program is having marked success. Girls are taking self-defense classes while the boys are learning how to protect the girls and respect them. Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi.
    Video

    Video New Hampshire Voters Are Independent, Mindful of History

    Once every four years, the northeastern state of New Hampshire becomes the center of the U.S. political universe with its first-in-the-nation presidential primary. What's unusual about New Hampshire is how seriously the voters take their role and the responsibility of being among the first to weigh in on the candidates.
    Video

    Video Chocolate Lovers Get a Sweet History Lesson

    Observed in many countries around the world, Valentine’s Day is sometimes celebrated with chocolate festivals. But at a festival near Washington, the visitors experience a bit more than a sugar rush. They go on a sweet journey through history. VOA’s June Soh takes us to the festival.
    Video

    Video 'Smart' Bandages Could Heal Wounds More Quickly

    Simple bandages are usually seen as the first line of attack in healing small to moderate wounds and burns. But scientists say new synthetic materials with embedded microsensors could turn bandages into a much more valuable tool for emergency physicians. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Bhutanese Refugees in New Hampshire Closely Watching Primary Election

    They fled their country and lived in refugee camps in neighboring Nepal for decades before being resettled in the northeastern U.S. state of New Hampshire -- now the focus of the U.S. presidential contest. VOA correspondent Aru Pande spoke with members of the Bhutanese community, including new American citizens, about the campaign and the strong anti-immigrant rhetoric of some of the candidates.
    Video

    Video Researchers Use 3-D Printer to Produce Transplantable Body Parts

    Human organ transplants have become fairly common around the world in the past few decades. Researchers at various universities are coordinating their efforts to find solutions -- including teams at the University of Pennsylvania and Rice University in Houston that are experimenting with a 3-D printer -- to make blood vessels and other structures for implant. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, they are also using these artificial body parts to seek ways of defeating cancerous tumors.
    Video

    Video Helping the Blind 'See' Great Art

    There are 285 million blind and visually impaired people in the world who are unable to enjoy visual art at a museum. One New York photographer is trying to fix this situation by making tangible copies of the world’s masterpieces. VOA correspondent Victoria Kupchinetsky was there as visually impaired people got a feel for great art. Joy Wagner narrates her report.
    Video

    Video Sanders, Clinton Battle for Young Democratic Vote

    Despite a narrow loss to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in last week's Iowa Democratic caucuses, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders secured more than 80 percent of the vote among those between the ages of 18 and 29. VOA correspondent Aru Pande talks to Democrats in New Hampshire about who they are leaning towards and why in this week's primary.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.
    Video

    Video Genius Lets World Share Its Knowledge

    Inspired by crowdsourcing companies like Wikipedia, Genius allows anyone to edit anything on the web, using its web annotation tool
    Video

    Video In Philippines, Mixed Feelings About Greater US Military Presence

    In the Philippines, some who will be directly affected by a recent Supreme Court decision clearing the way for more United States troop visits are having mixed reactions.  The increased rotations come at a time when the Philippines is trying to build up its military in the face of growing maritime assertiveness from China.  From Bahile, Palawan on the coast of the South China Sea, Simone Orendain has this story.
    Video

    Video Microcephaly's Connection to Zika: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

    The Zika virus rarely causes problems for the people who get it, but it seems to be having a devastating impact on babies whose mothers are infected with Zika. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
    Video

    Video Stunning Artworks Attract Record Crowds, Thanks to Social Media

    A new exhibit at the oldest art museum in America is shattering attendance records. Thousands of visitors are lining up to see nine giant works of art that have gotten a much-deserved shot of viral marketing. The 150-year-old Smithsonian American Art Museum has never had a response quite like this. VOA's Julie Taboh reports.