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Global warming opens new Arctic shipping lane

Northeast Passage through the Arctic slashes time and money for mariners and could be a boom for Russia. But it raises concerns about ice loss induced by global warming.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 15, 2009

Clear course: Cargo ships plied a stretch of the Northeast Passage (map, below) from Vladivostok, Russia, to Rotterdam Harbor in the Netherlands in September.

Beluga Shipping/AP

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Mariners have dreamed for centuries of finding a commercially viable shortcut between Europe and Asia across the top of the world. Many have died trying, but none succeeded until late September, when two German freighters slipped quietly into Rotterdam Harbor after completing a historic month-long journey from Vladivostok, in Russia's Pacific far east, through the once-impassable Arctic route.

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The Bremen-based company that operates the two specially reinforced cargo ships, the Beluga Fraternity and the Beluga Foresight, that made the journey said that taking the new route saved 10 days and $300,000 per ship over the usual 11,000 nautical-mile voyage through the Indian Ocean, the Suez Canal, and the Mediterranean in order to reach the North Atlantic.

"We are all very proud and delighted to be the first Western shipping company which has successfully transited the legendary Northeast Passage," the Beluga company said in a statement. It plans to begin using the route on a regular basis.

The bad news, scientists say, is that the feat only became possible because the Arctic icecap is retreating at an alarming rate, leaving vast swaths of open water where solid pack ice recently frustrated attempts at even summer navigation. This year saw the third-lowest amount of Arctic sea ice on record, after the record set in 2007.

"Our studies over the past 30 years show the rate of retreat by sea ice is growing very rapidly," says Igor Mokhov, director of the official Institute of Atmospheric Physics in Moscow. "If these tendencies continue, the navigable period by the late 21st century might grow to several months" from the current six-to-eight week window the Northeast Passage offers each summer, he says.

'Huge economic opportunity for Russia'

At least one climate-change skeptic, writing in Britain's Daily Telegraph, has dismissed the Beluga expedition as a "warmist publicity stunt," staged to take advantage of a statistical blip in Arctic ice formation. Other critics say that the German ships didn't really do anything new: Large sections of the northern route had been routinely traversed by Soviet shipping in the past to service remote Arctic settlements, before falling into disuse after the collapse of the USSR. Moreover, the Beluga ships had to be accompanied by a nuclear-powered Russian icebreaker for part of their journey, though they apparently did not require any assistance.

Most Russian Arctic experts say that climate change appears undeniable, but some caution that its impact remains unpredictable.