For a ship on a mission of worldwide importance, the Yong Sheng is a distinctly unimpressive sight. The gray and green hull of the 19,000-tonne cargo vessel, operated by China’s state-owned COSCO Group, is streaked with rust, while its cargo of steel and heavy equipment would be best described as prosaic.
Yet the Yong Sheng’s journey, which began on Aug. 8 from Dalian, a port in northeastern China, to Rotterdam, the Netherlands, is being watched with fascination by politicians and scientists. They are intrigued not by its cargo, but by its route. The Yong Sheng is headed in the opposite direction from the Netherlands and sailing toward the Bering Strait that separates Russia and Alaska. Once through the strait, it will enter the Arctic Ocean, where it will attempt one of the most audacious voyages of modern seafaring: sailing through one of the Arctic’s fabled passages, the Northern Sea Route.
The passage, which hugs the coast of northern Russia, and its mirror route, the Northwest Passage, which threads its way through the islands and creeks of northern Canada, have claimed the lives of thousands of sailors who tried for centuries to cross the Arctic in an attempt to link the ports of the Far East and Europe by sailing via the North Pole. Thick pack ice, violent storms and plummeting temperatures thwarted these endeavors.
However, global warming has transformed the Arctic in recent years and its summer ice cover has dropped by more than 40 percent over the past few decades, raising the prospect that it may soon be possible to sail through the Arctic’s sea routes with ease — a notion that is proving irresistible to shipping lines, not to mention mining companies, as well as oil and gas exploration firms. All believe the region is ripe for exploitation.
Several fairly large ships have already sailed the Northern Sea Route. However, the voyage of the Yong Sheng, backed by the Chinese government, has special significance: It is the first attempt by the world’s biggest exporter to exploit the Arctic’s disappearing ice to reach its biggest market, the EU.
“We always knew global warming would affect the planet first in the Arctic, but we have been floored by the rapidity of that change,” US National Snow and Ice Data Center director Mark Serreze said.
“Temperatures have risen dramatically. At this rate, I would expect the Arctic to be completely free of ice in summer by around 2030. That is why everyone has become so interested in the region,” he said.
The attraction for China in opening up the Northern Sea Route is straightforward. According to COSCO, the Yong Sheng’s 5,440km journey will take about 30 days, shaving two weeks off the traditional route between Asia and Europe via the Suez Canal.
“The Arctic route can cut 12 to 15 days from traditional routes, so the maritime industry calls it the Golden Waterway,” COSCO said when it announced the Yong Sheng’s voyage.
For good measure, the new route will avoid the pirate-infested waters of the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.
Making such cuts in transport times means major savings in fuel and lower costs for its products, hence China’s new enthusiasm for all things polar. Although its border goes nowhere near the Arctic, China recently gained observer status in the Arctic Council, a group of nations — Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the US — with major interests in the region. China, whose total foreign trade was worth US$3.87 trillion last year, can see clear economic benefits from exploiting the warming that is gripping the planet and shrinking its northern sea ice shelves.