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FEATURE-Shrinking Arctic ice to open shipping short-cuts
January 28, 2003
By Alister Doyle

KIRKENES, Norway (Reuters) - The shrinking Arctic icecap may open a fabled passage for ships between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans within a decade, transforming an icy graveyard into a short-cut trade route.

Ship owners may be among the few to benefit from global warming in the extreme north, where the giant thaw is threatening traditional habitats for indigenous peoples and wildlife ranging from polar bears to caribou.

U.N. studies project that the Arctic may be free of ice in summertime by 2080. The polar passage, clogged by ice throughout seafaring history, may come to challenge the Panama and Suez canals.

"In the next 10 years I believe we will solve the problems of round-the-year goods transport through the Northern Sea Route," said Alexander Medvedev, general director of Russia's Murmansk Shipping Company.

"You can save at least 10-15 days on the voyage from Japan to Europe, especially in summertime," he told Reuters during a visit to Kirkenes on the Arctic tip of Norway.

The company now runs two or three ice-breaker-led voyages a year from Europe to Japan and back, hugging the Russian coast, and reckons the route can be opened year-round if Moscow makes big new investments.

On the other side of the Arctic, the Northwest Passage past Alaska and through a maze of islands off Canada is likely to take longer to be ice-free because it is further north. It also passes through straits that get blocked more easily by ice.

"For the Northwest Passage it will take another 20 years after conditions for the Northern Sea Route are favourable," said Peter Wadhams, professor of Ocean Physics at Cambridge University in England. "I'm sure it's going to happen -- the ice is retreating."


Yet insurance companies are likely to stay wary of both polar routes. High premiums, a need for ice-resistant hulls for ships and ice-breaker escorts may well wipe out the advantages of lower costs due to the shorter distance.

Mariners searched in vain for centuries for a short-cut from Europe to the Far East -- Columbus ran into North America in 1492 when he sailed west from Europe hoping to reach Japan.

The search for passages cost the lives of explorers including Dutchman Wilhelm Barents and Englishman Henry Hudson -- after whom the Barents Sea and Hudson Bay are named. Barents' ship ran aground in 1596 and Hudson died after a 1611 mutiny.

Other explorers were victims of cold or scurvy before a Finnish-Swedish expedition navigated the Northern Sea Route in 1878. The Norwegian Roald Amundsen was first to get through the Northwest Passage in 1906.

Even as the ice shrinks, it may take billions of dollars to open sea routes. Ports in northern Russia have deteriorated since the end of the Cold War when nuclear powered ice-breakers led warships between the Atlantic and Pacific.

"The obstacles are more economic and political -- you have to have a lot of infrastructure: navigational aids, search and rescue teams, the ability to clean up pollution," Wadhams said.

And environmentalists want safeguards to protect indigenous peoples in some of the world's largest wildernesses and to prevent a get-rich-quick rush for resources ranging from oil and gas to timber and minerals.

"Melting of the ice will make access far easier to northern Siberia and other wildernesses," said Svein Tveitdal, managing director of the U.N. Environment Programme's polar centre.

"There has to be a strategy for sustainable development of the Arctic. It mustn't become a sort of new Africa, where colonialists exploited the resources." About four million people live around the Arctic.

U.N. studies show that the Arctic ice has shrunk by about three percent a decade since the 1970s and that air temperatures have risen by about five Celsius in the past century.

The exploration of oil and gas fields will increase the risk of pollution such as the Exxon Valdez tanker spill off Alaska in 1989. Norway plans to open its first gas field in the Barents Sea in 2006.

The polar regions are most vulnerable to global warming, caused by burning fossil fuels like oil. Scientists say the emissions are blanketing the planet and pushing up temperatures.

In the Arctic, melting ice and snow exposes darker soil and rocks that trap heat. The sun's heat bounces back into space more readily at the equator than near the poles, where low slanting rays have to pass through thicker layers of atmosphere.


New polar routes will save about 4,000 nautical miles (7,400 km) on some routes from Europe to the Far East compared to southerly routes through Panama or Suez. Shipments could include cargoes like grains, frozen fish, oil and gas or cars.

And a route north of Canada, for instance, might save 6,000-8,000 nautical miles for a super tanker from Venezuela to Japan. Vessels too big to pass through the Panama Canal have to go round all of South America.

Japan has also expressed interest in transporting nuclear waste to Europe through the Arctic, a plan denounced by environmentalists who say it could get trapped in ice.

Rob Huebert, associate director for the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary in Canada, said one odd spin-off of global warming is that some regions are getting colder, complicating any shipping plans.

"In some areas the ice is getting thicker as it breaks up elsewhere," he said.

Willy Oestreng, a Norwegian professor of international affairs who led a global study of the Northern Sea Route in the 1990s, said Russia was ahead of Canada because of factors including more ports, albeit dilapidated, and ice-breakers.

"The differences are striking. The Northern Sea Route is more developed," he said. He noted that nickel had been shipped from northwest Russia year-round since the 1970s.

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