China sails ahead on Arctic shipping route

Global warming means that the Arctic’s fabled Northern Sea Route could soon be ice-free during the summer, slashing journey times for cargo ships sailing from the Far East to Europe. Experts say this may change the face of world trade, with No. 1 exporter China as the major beneficiary

By Robin McKie  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Wed, Aug 21, 2013 - Page 9

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.

This point was stressed by Qi Shaobin, a professor at the Dalian Maritime University in China.

Opening up the Arctic “will change the market pattern of the global shipping industry because it will shorten the maritime distance significantly among the Chinese, European and American markets,” he told Chinese state media last week.

Shipping figures certainly look encouraging. Russian authorities last week said they had already granted permission for more than 370 ships to sail the route this year. Last year, only 46 ships sailed the entire length of the passage from Europe to Asia, while in 2010, only four vessels made the trip.

In the wake of these figures, several proposals have been announced to take advantage of the expected expansion in Arctic shipping. Iceland is considering plans, backed by German entrepreneurs, to build a major port on its northeastern shores. Similarly, the Stornoway Port Authority in Scotland last month said it was considering building a special port for Arctic ships so they could refuel and discharge cargoes into smaller vessels for onward shipment to Rotterdam, Le Havre, Liverpool or London. In addition, Valentin Davydants, captain of Russia’s Atomflot fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers, has estimated that 15 million tonnes of cargo will use the full Northern Sea Route by 2021.

It sounds impressive until you realize that 929 million tonnes of cargo was shipped through the Suez Canal by 18,000 vessels in 2011. By that standard, the Northern Sea Route has still got a long way to go in transforming world shipping.

Other issues affect the attractiveness of sailing in Arctic waters. The seas around the north pole may be losing their summer ice cover, but there is still the ever-present danger of icebergs and drifting slabs of pack ice.

“Satellite photographs may suggest an area is completely clear of ice, but there is still a chance that a ship will encounter drifts of ice,” Serreze said. “It is very unlikely that the Yong Sheng will go through these waters on its own. The Russians have the best, most powerful armada of ice-breakers. Some of these are huge nuclear-powered vessels and I would expect one of these will have been hired to escort the Yong Sheng on the main part of its journey.”

The last point is crucial. The Arctic Ocean will eventually lose its sea ice cover for several months in summer, but this is not likely to occur for a couple of decades.

For the foreseeable future, the Northern Sea Route will be open for only a few weeks in summer and still require ice-breaker escorts. These factors will severely limit the route’s potential in the short term, a point stressed by Shanghai International Shipping Institute researcher Zhang Yongfeng.

“The navigable period of the passage is relatively short, while the port and pier infrastructure along the route is incomplete,” he told Fox News.

Then there is the major expansion of the Panama Canal, expected to be completed by 2015. When that happens, it will be possible to take ships that have more than double the upper cargo capacity on vessels currently allowed in the canal. Again, the major beneficiary is expected to be China, with its voracious export plans. The costs of shipping its goods to the eastern US are predicted to drop by more than 30 percent as a result of the Panama’s expansion.

“For the next decade, I would have thought that the expanded Panama canal will have a far greater impact on world trade than opening up routes in the Arctic,” Serreze said.

However, others disagree. One estimate suggests that between 5 percent and 15 percent of China’s international trade could use the Arctic route by the end of the decade, and where China leads, the world is very likely to follow.