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.
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.
"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."
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."