In early August， China commenced its first commercial voyage to Europe through the Arctic Circle， with a single container ship successfully passing through waters which only a decade ago would have remained virtually impossible to navigate for 12 months out of the year.
Shipping to Europe， China’s biggest trade partner， via the Arctic instead of by way of the Indian Ocean， the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean， a distance of some 12，600 nautical miles （23，300 kilometers）， could save Chinese shipping firms a fortune in fuel and tolls. In addition， the newly opened Arctic summer shipping lane is expected to bring new economic vitality to the decaying industrial base in China’s northeastern provinces， which are fast becoming the country’s rust belt.
The Yongsheng， a 19，000-ton vessel owned by the State-owned COSCO shipping company， set sail on August 8 from the port of Dalian， Liaoning Province， and was expected to arrive in Rotterdam， the Netherlands in 35 days， shearing 12 to 15 days off the time it would have taken the ship to travel via the Indian Ocean route.
The Yongsheng’s Arctic navigation came only a year after the icebreaking ship Snow Dragon explored the same route. The captain of the Snow Dragon， the first known Chinese ship to navigate the Northeast Passage， Wang Jianzhong served as an assistant navigator on the Yongsheng’s experimental voyage this year.
Li Bingrui， an oceanographer with the Polar Research Institute of China who also served aboard the Snow Dragon during its Arctic voyage last year， said the Chinese cargo ship Yongsheng had picked a perfect time to navigate across the Arctic， because in late August and early September the Northeast Route is now almost ice free.
According to Li， there are three major waterways in the Arctic Circle. The Northeast Passage begins in Scandinavia and runs all the way to the Far East via the waters of northern Siberia and the Bering Strait. The far-trickier Northwest Passage， which swallowed hundreds of sail and steamships during the fruitless attempts to navigate it in the 19th and early 20th centuries， bridges the Atlantic and Pacific oceans via the hazard-strewn seas off northern Canada and Alaska. The final route is known as the Central Route and lies straight across the North Pole， navigable only by air or sled. Even in this era of ice-free Arctic Ocean summers， of these three routes， the Northeast Passage remains the most navigable. The Snow Dragon paid several hundred thousand dollars to Russian maritime authorities， largely as mandatory fees for crossing parts of Russia’s exclusive economic zones and also for an escort in the form of a Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker. Despite these additional costs， the voyage still worked out cheaper than the alternative.
“One day shaved off the voyage means a great reduction in labor costs and a 27 ton saving on fuel，” said Li Jianxiong， COSCO’s board representative.
The Northeast Passage has been a going concern in summer for at least five years， ever since two 10，000-ton German freighters traversed the route in summer without encountering difficulty.
The 3，000-nautical-mile Arctic waterway off Russia’s northern coast， also known as the North Sea Route， is now navigable for about two months in summer due to the retreat of pack ice in the Arctic. Climate change is expected to increase this navigable window to four months or longer by 2020， boosting the commercial value of Arctic waterways.
In summer， the Arctic ice sheet has retreated at an annual pace of 50，000 square kilometers each year between 1979 and 2000， an area about the size of Costa Rica. As global warming accelerated in the past decade， that figure rose to 220，000 square kilometers， an area of ice the size of Great Britain.
According to the US National Snow and Ice Data Center， the Arctic ice extent decreased to about 4.1 million square kilometers last August， or the lowest rate since monitoring began in the late 1980s.
In 2007， the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change （IPCC） predicted that the whole Arctic Circle would be ice-free in summer by the end of the 21st century， but this year the accelerating rate of global warming made the panel revise its estimate downwards by half a century. Other scientists have predicted this shift will occur as early as 2030.
In preparation for an ice-free Arctic， Iceland， Norway and Russian are already beginning to survey the Northeast Passage to scout out potential locations for port facilities.
Despite renewed interest in the Northeast Passage， this lane is unlikely to become a major competitor for the Suez Canal in the foreseeable future. The latter annually sees the passage of 17，000 ships with more than 1 billion tons of cargo， and lies at a crucial junction between the lucrative Indian， Mediterranean and Atlantic trade hubs.
However， as incidence of piracy has risen， particularly around the Horn of Africa， some shipping concerns are looking to minimize their risks by seeking alternative routes to Europe. For Chinese ships in particular， as Beijing’s territorial spats with neighbors in the South China Sea have hotted up， more cordial relations with Russia make the Northeast Passage increasingly attractive. Even official spokespeople are expressing hope that global warming will further devastate the area’s sea ice in order to provide even more commercial opportunities.