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Russia’s Suez Canal? Ships start plying a less-icy Arctic, thanks to climate change

LONDON — Under partly sunny skies and relatively balmy temperatures in the low 50s, the Venta Maersk sailed through the Bering Strait this past week and steered hard to port, beginning a modern-day voyage of discovery that could hearken a transformation for global shipping and the Arctic environment.

The Venta is a big, new, pricey, ice-class vessel owned by Danish shipping giant Maersk — and it is the world’s first container ship to attempt the Northern Sea Route, the fabled Northeast Passage that runs from the edge of Alaska to the top of Scandinavia along Russia’s desolate Siberian coastline.

Maritime transit is now possible between July and October because of the rapid and, to many, deeply unsettling retreat of Arctic sea ice due to profound climate change, a trend that is amplified at the North and South poles.

Russia, China and commercial shipping interests are among those with high hopes that the Northern Sea Route could become a melt-season alternative to Egypt’s Suez Canal, trim weeks off transit times and slash fuel costs for vessels shuttling between ports in Europe and Asia — and the Americas.

The Russian company Rosatom, which runs the largest ­nuclear-powered ice-breaking fleet in the world, boasts that the route has “no queues and no pirates,” an allusion to the threat posed by African buccaneers in the Gulf of Aden in recent years.

But as the pace of Arctic traffic quickens, an environment that is today mostly pristine and sparsely populated — by whales and walruses, scientists and indigenous people, ice-breaking crews and oil workers — could be transformed.

And Russia and its competitors may find themselves at odds over who controls what and where. “The Arctic has turned into an object of territorial, resource and military-strategic interest for a number of states,” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu warned last month. “This could lead to growth in the potential for conflict in this region.”

Decades ago, the polar cap was a Cold War chessboard for dueling navies and submarine war games. The next fight will be more mercantile.

Time-lapse satellite images show sea ice swirling in clockwise gyre around the North Pole, spreading in the winter and shrinking in the summer, year after year. It is plainly discernible that the extent of summer ice has been shrinking — by 13.4 percent a decade, according to NASA.

Looking forward in time, Walt Meier, a senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado, said climate models suggest ice-free summers in the Arctic sometime between 2050 and 2070, with some scenarios forecasting more rapid change, as soon as 2030.

What would that look like from a satellite?

“A blue ocean over the North Pole in September,” Meier said.

That’s extremely distressing for the many who worry about the future of life on this planet. But this “new Arctic” could be a boon for some, starting with Russia.

The Northern Sea Route, because of its location along the shallow seas of Siberia, is free of ice earlier and stays free longer than other areas of the Arctic. Much of the route passes through waters along Russia’s exclusive economic zone, and vessels seeking passage must apply for permits and permissions from Russia’s Northern Sea Route Administration. The Russians also charge fees for navigation and ice-breaking assistance.

It can be a perilous passage.

“If you get into trouble, you are very far from civilization,” said Mika Hovilainen, a senior project manager at Aker Arctic Technology, which designs ships with hardened propulsion systems and thick bows to withstand the battering of floating sea ice.

He called conditions in the Arctic, even in summer, “extreme.”

But the route’s key selling point is time. A ship sailing from South Korea to Germany via South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope would take on average 46 days, according to The same voyage via the Suez Canal would be 34 days. The trip via the Northern Sea Route: 23 days.

Hundreds of smaller ships are already out there. A few clicks on show oil tankers, cargo ships, research vessels. Even a few cruise ships are plying the waters this summer. The Chinese shipping company Cosco is on track to complete a dozen transits this year in freighters.

It is maritime container traffic, though, along with fossil-fuel tankers, that are the heart and lungs of the global economy. And this is a big moment for both in the Arctic.

Russia shipped the first load of liquefied natural gas from its new, $27 billion Yamal production facility above the Arctic Circle to China’s port of Rudong in July, completing the inaugural trip in 19 days at sea — 16 fewer days than via the Suez Canal. ­Gas shipments from Yamal to Europe became routine earlier this year.

The next test is how a modern ice-class, 3,600-container ship such as the Venta Maersk fares.

In its historic first transit of the Northern Sea Route, the Venta is carrying a cargo of electronics put aboard at Busan in South Korea and frozen fish loaded at the Russian port of Vladivostok. The vessel is scheduled to stop at Bremerhaven, Germany, then terminate in Russia at St. Petersburg in late September.

The shipping line stresses that this is a “one-off sea trial,” an exploratory voyage to look and learn and gather scientific data, Maersk spokesperson Janina von Spalding said.

There are Russian pilots aboard to help navigate past the hazards of floating ice. First-year ice is usually two or three feet thick, but in some years, driven by wind and current, young and old ice piles up alongside the Russian islands in ridges 14-feet high.

Four Russian nuclear-powered icebreakers are ready to assist the Venta if needed. They’re routinely deployed to smash through the ice and lead convoys of ships in the fall, winter and spring months.

Malte Humpert, founder of the Arctic Institute, who tracks marine traffic at the pole, cautioned that the environment remains unpredictable.

“The lifeblood of container shipping is timing. You book a spot at a port terminal hour by hour,” he said, part of the global economy’s “just-in-time” delivery systems.

“In the Arctic, you can’t set your watch by your transit,” Humpert said, because stuff happens.

A few weeks ago, a passenger ship in the Canadian Arctic ran aground, and its passengers had to be evacuated. In late June, ice still choked Russia’s Gulf of Ob, paralyzing shipping, according to the Barents Observer.

The additional melting expected in the coming years won’t necessarily help, said Andrey Todorov, an expert in Arctic issues at the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow.

“Even if the ice continues to recede, it doesn’t mean that conditions will become easier for commercial vessels. There will be an even higher risk that huge floating pieces of ice could break from the pack ice and collide,” he said. “Reinforcing vessels for ice conditions costs a lot.”

There are concerns beyond the dangers to vessels and their contents.

Land and sea animals may be exposed to new threats, not only by increased shipping, but by the oil, gas and mineral extraction along the Siberian coastline, which harbors a trove of untapped reserves.

Environmentalists are not so worried about a ship running down a polar bear, but they are fearful of possible spills as tankers laden with oil and gas operate in extreme conditions, especially in winter. Cold-water spills, one of which involved the Exxon Valdez in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989, take decades to clean and disperse.

In addition to the development of ports, the use of heavy fuels and increased pollution cause concern — especially the “black carbon” emitted by ships and industry. The sooty pollution, when spread across the ice, speeds its melting, as dark surfaces absorb rather than reflect the sun’s heat.

Geopolitics could also get a bit messy in the Arctic.

Before the big melt began, the region was mostly of interest to explorers, scientists, local populations and cold warriors. Now it is seen as an oil field and waterway, with Russia, Denmark, Canada, Norway and the United States asserting rights — and other countries, such as China, jostling to fish, drill and traverse. Whether the region becomes a “global commons” or a flash point is to be seen.

In testimony this spring before the Senate, the Navy’s U.S. Pacific Command chief, Adm. Harry Harris — now retired and serving as U.S. ambassador to South Korea — said: “Of particular note are Russian efforts to build presence and influence in the High North. Russia has more bases north of the Arctic Circle than all other countries combined, and is building more with distinctly military capabilities.”

Laurence C. Smith, a professor of geography at the University of California at Los Angeles, who has modeled future maritime traffic scenarios in the Arctic, said the Northern Sea Route, in the short-term, may be a niche market.

But he wonders: “Imagine a time in the not-so-distant future when ice ceases to be the limiting factor.”

Ferris-Rotman reported from Moscow.

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