Melting ice pulls Norway closer to Asia

Jun 23, 2013 by Pierre-Henry Deshayes
A street sign in Finnish and Russian is seen in the city of Kirkenes, northern Norway, near the Russian border on June 4, 2013. Kirkenes in northernmost Norway used to be further away from Asia than virtually any other European port, but it suddenly seems a lot closer. The reason: Global warming.

The town of Kirkenes in northernmost Norway used to be further away from Asia than virtually any other European port, but it suddenly seems a lot closer. The reason: Global warming.

has opened up the along Russia's Arctic coastline, changing international trade patterns in profound ways—even if so far it looks more like a sleepy county road than a busy, four-lane highway.

In a change of potentially revolutionary significance, the travel time between the Japanese port of Yokohama and Hamburg in Germany has been cut by 40 percent, while fuel expenditure is down by 20 percent.

"For the first time in history we are witnessing a new ocean opening up in the high north which will have a major impact on both trade and provision of energy," said Sturla Henriksen, the president of the Norwegian Shipowners' Association.

In 2012, when the ice reached its lowest extent on record, 3.4 million square kilometres (1.3 million square miles), 46 ships used the new route, compared with only four in 2010, according to Rosatomflot, a Russian operator of icebreakers.

The traffic is still negligible compared with traditional routes. Ships transit the Panama Canal 15,000 times a year, while passing through the Suez 19,000 times. But the future looks promising.

The volume of goods transported along the Northern Sea Route is likely to grow strongly in the coming years, from 1.26 million tonnes last year to 50 million tonnes in 2020, according to the Norwegian Shipowners' Association.

Kirkenes, whose 3,400 inhabitants live in nearly uninterrupted darkness during the winter months, is suddenly preparing frantically for the expected boom.

The Tschudi Shipping Group plans to open a logistics hub measuring the equivalent of 200 football fields in a fjord nearby that is held ice-free all year by the warm Gulf Stream.

The port's location is extremely strategic. It is nine days' travel from both the Pacific and the Mediterranean, and close to major oil and gas deposits in the Arctic as well as mines in northern Sweden and Finland.

Twenty-six of the ships that traversed the Arctic Ocean between Europe and Asia last year were carrying hydrocarbons, while six were transporting iron ore or coal.

The new route also opens up an interesting market for liquefied natural gas (LNG) extracted in the Barents Sea, especially after North America, the customer that local companies initially had in mind, has turned away following a decision to use its own shale gas.

On the other hand, Asia's appetite for gas has increased after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011, and prices there are significantly higher than in Europe.

Adding to the lucrative nature of the trade, each ship transporting LNG by the northern route can do it close to $7 million cheaper than vessels going through the Suez.

Traditional goods traffic, however, is not realistic in these latitudes, according to Tschudi Shipping.

"The big trading routes in dry bulk shipping are located too far South for the Northern Sea Route to become relevant," said Henrik Falck, the company's project manager for Eastern Europe.

And "we can forget about containers," he added, noting that owners preferred traditional routes with stops at densely populated cities along the way.

In a fragile ecosystem that is the source of immense worry among environmentalists, Russia plays a central role in assisting navigation with icebreakers.

It has also decided to establish 10 bases along its coast to redress the current abject lack of infrastructure.

Admitted last month as an observer in the Arctic Council, China also wants to be part of the game.

After the first transit of its icebreaker Snow Dragon last year, the world's second-largest economy now plans to send its first commercial shipment along the northern route this summer.

Between 5 and 15 percent of Chinese international trade could take this new road by 2020, the director of the Polar Research Institute of China, Yang Huigeng, was quoted as saying in the media.

Explore further: May global temperatures third warmest on record

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

China ship sails to Atlantic and back, via Arctic

Sep 27, 2012

(AP)—A Chinese icebreaker docked Thursday at Shanghai after becoming the first vessel from China to cross the Arctic Ocean, a landmark trip that is part of Beijing's efforts to expand its presence in the ...

Arctic ice cap near 2007 record minimum: Russia

Aug 04, 2011

The polar ice cap in the Arctic has melted to near its 2007 record minimum level and in some areas is 50 percent smaller than average, Russia's environmental monitoring agency said Thursday.

Russian gas tanker forges Arctic passage to China

Aug 25, 2010

A Russian gas tanker is this month making a historic voyage across the famed Northeast passage as receding ice opens up an elusive trade route from Asia to the West sought for centuries by explorers.

Recommended for you

China says massive area of its soil polluted

3 hours ago

A huge area of China's soil covering more than twice the size of Spain is estimated to be polluted, the government said Thursday, announcing findings of a survey previously kept secret.

Book offers simplified guide to shale gas extraction

3 hours ago

The new book, "Science Beneath the Surface: A Very Short Guide to the Marcellus Shale," attempts to offer a reader-friendly, unbiased, scientific guide needed to make well-informed decisions regarding energy ...

New approach needed to deal with increased flood risk

4 hours ago

Considering the impacts of climate change on flood risk may not be effective unless current risk is managed better, according to new research from the University of Bristol published today in the Journal ...

Researchers question emergency water treatment guidelines

23 hours ago

The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) recommendations for treating water after a natural disaster or other emergencies call for more chlorine bleach than is necessary to kill disease-causing pathogens ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

China says massive area of its soil polluted

A huge area of China's soil covering more than twice the size of Spain is estimated to be polluted, the government said Thursday, announcing findings of a survey previously kept secret.

First radar vision for Copernicus

Launched on 3 April, ESA's Sentinel-1A satellite has already delivered its first radar images of Earth. They offer a tantalising glimpse of the kind of operational imagery that this new mission will provide ...

Image: Grand Canyon geology lessons on view

The Grand Canyon in northern Arizona is a favorite for astronauts shooting photos from the International Space Station, as well as one of the best-known tourist attractions in the world. The steep walls of ...

Book offers simplified guide to shale gas extraction

The new book, "Science Beneath the Surface: A Very Short Guide to the Marcellus Shale," attempts to offer a reader-friendly, unbiased, scientific guide needed to make well-informed decisions regarding energy ...

Cosmologists weigh cosmic filaments and voids

(Phys.org) —Cosmologists have established that much of the stuff of the universe is made of dark matter, a mysterious, invisible substance that can't be directly detected but which exerts a gravitational ...