There are two main sea routes through the Arctic ocean. The Northern Sea Route, with its perilous frozen waters, has long been feared by sailors. However, global warming means the passage could soon be ice-free in summer and all eyes are on uber-exporter China, keen to exploit the shorter freight times it offers, as it sets off on a trial voyage
The Northern Sea Route, or the Northeast Passage as it also known, hugs the coast of northern Russia between the Bering Strait in the east and the north cape of Norway in the west. The other route, the Northwest Passage, lies at the opposite edge of the Arctic Ocean and threads through the channels and islands that pepper the coast of Canada between Greenland and Alaska.
Shipping company COSCO Group’s decision to take the Northern Sea Route, rather than Northwest Passage, will have been a straightforward one.
Winds whip off Siberia and blow the sea ice that forms on its coast into deeper water. As a result, sea ice is generally thin along the eastern edge of the Arctic, along the Siberian coast, where the Northern Sea Route passes. That means that when temperatures rise, as they have been doing for the past few decades in the region, this will be one of the first places in the Arctic Ocean where sea ice — already thinned — will melt and disappear in the summer months.
Conditions along the Northwest Passage are far less favorable. Winds drive ice floes into the region’s myriad channels and creeks which can become blocked by thick ice for years, as mariners have found out, to their cost.
For example, al 129 men on John Franklin’s expedition — which set sail from England in 1845 — died when his two ships, Erebus and Terror, became trapped in thick ice. The route was not conquered until Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen navigated it between 1903 and 1906.
By contrast, the Northern Sea Route had been conquered several decades earlier, when Swedish explorer Adolf Nordenskiold sailed his ship Vega through the passage in 1879.
However, the voyage of the Yong Sheng through the Northern Sea Route will not be without its hazards. Satellite images provided by the US National Snow and Ice Data Center last week indicate that there are still significant amounts of sea ice blocking the route around the Taymyr Peninsula in Siberia.
“Arctic sea ice does not reach its minimum extent until mid-September,” center director Mark Serreze said. “Last year, it dropped below 4 million square kilometers — the lowest, by far, that we have recorded since we began satellite monitoring of the region. However, this year, the weather was been cooler and sea ice coverage will certainly not drop to last year’s levels. That means there will be more sea ice en route and more danger. The Yong Sheng will certainly need the help of an ice-breaker.”
Nevertheless, scientists do agree that summer sea ice in the Arctic will disappear later this century. Cover has dropped at a rate of about 13 percent every 10 years for the past few decades. Some believe this rate is accelerating and expect all summer sea ice to disappear in a few years.