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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.

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"This phenomenon is complicated, and we can't guarantee that the northern passage will become ice-free," says Viktor Dmitriyev, an expert with the official Institute of the Arctic and Antarctic Regions in St. Petersburg. "But it looks very possible. And if it happens it will be a huge economic opportunity for Russia. It can mean a whole new impulse for northern development."

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A study by the US Geological Survey several years ago estimated that as much as 25 percent of the world's remaining untapped oil deposits and 30 percent of its gas lie under the fast-receding Arctic icecap. Other resources, such as fisheries, could open up as well.

That prospect has triggered a flurry of activity at Russia's Ministry of Transport, which regulates the country's sea lanes. The ministry's head of sea and river transport, Alexander Davydenko, says a new department to administer the northern sea route is being created to build infrastructure and oversee tariffs. He says the ministry is also building at least one massive new nuclear icebreaker to supplement its current fleet of six, and is establishing a new Arctic air-sea rescue unit.

"Scientists tell us that we face warming, and that the boundaries of the Arctic ice are receding," says Mr. Davydenko. "Therefore we are taking a variety of measures ... to safeguard the interests of the Russian Federation in the Arctic region."

Greenpeace: No reason to rejoice over Arctic melting

Shipping experts say that, at least for the moment, bureaucratic obstacles remain more daunting than the threat of pack ice. The Beluga expedition was held up for nearly a month in Vladivostok while it obtained necessary permits and endured close scrutiny by the Federal Security Service. The need to be accompanied by an icebreaker is another factor that will increase costs and limit the route's attractiveness in the near term.

"There are a lot of issues, including political ones, that remain to be worked out," says Mr. Dmitriyev.

But if the ice disappears as predicted, the Russians say their route is the one shipping companies will likely choose. While the better-known Northwest Passage, which runs across the top of Canada, is more southerly, Russian experts say it is plagued by geographical and geopolitical problems that may prove insoluble. It runs through a maze of Arctic islands with narrow and shallow channels, they say. Moreover, Canadian sovereignty in the area is challenged by the US, which has lately begun waking up to Arctic possibilities. The Northeast Passage is Russian territory and clear water from Vladivostok to Norway.

"Look at a map, and you'll see the Canadian route is difficult to navigate because of all the islands and fiords, while the Russian passage is wide open," says Alexei Bezborodov, a shipping expert with Infranews, a Russian transport journal.

Amid economic optimism, Russian environmentalists are aghast.

"There is no possibility, in Russia or any other country, to develop this route in an ecologically safe mode," says Vladimir Chuprov, head of Greenpeace-Russia's energy program. "If this passage is opening up, it creates not only huge risks but possible disasters. That's no reason to rejoice, but to tear our hair [out] in despair."