An icebreaker has become the first ship from China to cross the Arctic Ocean, underscoring Beijing’s growing interest in a remote region where a record thaw caused by climate change may open new trade routes.
The voyage highlights how China — the world’s No. 2 economy — is extending its reach to the Arctic, which is rich in oil and gas as well as a potential commercial shipping route between the north Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
The icebreaker Xuelong (雪龍), or “Snow Dragon,” arrived in Iceland this week after sailing the Northern Route along the Russian coast.
Expedition leader Yang Huigen (楊惠根), head of the Polar Research Institute of China, said he had expected a lot more ice along the route at this time of year than the vessel encountered.
“To our astonishment ... most part of the Northern Sea Route is open,” he told reporters.
The icebreaker would return to China by a route closer to the North Pole. He said Beijing was interested in the “monumental change” in the polar environment caused by global warming.
Sea ice floating on the Arctic Ocean is on track to beat a record low set in 2007, making the region more accessible, but threatening the hunting lifestyles of indigenous peoples and wildlife such as polar bears and seals.
The thaw is slowly opening up the Arctic as a short-cut route — the German-based Beluga Group, for instance, sent a cargo vessel north from South Korea to Rotterdam in 2009.
“The [Chinese] journey indicates a growing interest in the melting of the ice in the northern regions and how climate change is affecting the globe and the future of all nations,” Icelandic President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson’s office said.
The extent of Arctic sea ice on Monday fell to 5.09 million square kilometers — an area smaller than Brazil, according to the US National Snow and Ice Data Center.
Sea ice reaches its smallest size in September before expanding again as winter approaches. China has overtaken the US as the top greenhouse gas emitter, mainly from burning fossil fuels, ahead of the EU, India and Russia.
China has applied to become an observer at the Arctic Council, made up of the US, Russia, Canada, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark and Iceland.
“The application will be handled in May next year,” Arctic Council Secretariat head Nina Buvang Vaaja said.
Other applicants seeking to join the council, which oversees management of the region, are Japan, South Korea, the EU Commission and Italy. Germany, Britain, France, Poland, Spain and the Netherlands are already observers.