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As global warming thaws sea ice, the maritime route along the northern coast of Russia linking Europe and the Far East is gradually opening. The 13,000-sea mile passage could almost halve the current travel time.
When the first English ship arrived in Japan almost 400 years ago, its owners and the government in London had two goals in mind. They wanted to find a new market for English wool and a short route along the northern coast of Russia that would dramatically reduce the time required to sail from Europe to the Pacific.
However, both the East India Company and King James failed to meet their objectives. The Japanese were already well clothed and the rudimentary maps of the period failed to include the Russian Far East, Siberia or the Kurile Islands.
Four centuries later, a number of ships have begun navigating the icy route between Europe and Asia. The vessels weigh anchor each summer when Arctic ice is at its thinnest, hoping to pave the way for further ships in the years ahead.
According to experts, the northern sea route could cut the journey time between Europe and Asia by half
In August last year, the "Knutsen," with a cargo of liquefied natural gas, arrived in the Japanese port of Yokohama, becoming the first LNG carrier to complete the Northern Sea Route from Norway. Warmer weather and reduced amounts of ice in the Barents and Kara seas meant the route to the Bering Strait was only blocked by "young ice" a mere 30 centimeters thick.
Regular energy route
The Knutsen's journey is considered significant as it is believed that the transportation of energy sources will become pivotal in this route. "Last year, the amount of sea area covered by ice shrank to the smallest amount on record," Eiji Sakai, an analyst with Japan's Ocean Policy Research Foundation, told DW.
"And we are anticipating that the ice cover will continue to decrease for the next 10 years or so, although it is obviously very difficult to predict with certainty." The establishment of the sea route over northern Russia has led to an increase in transit. Last year a total of 46 ships completed the journey up from 34 in 2011 and just 10 the previous year. Before that, the number of vessels making the journey was negligible.
This, however, remains minute in comparison with the Panama Canal, which is transited 15,000 times a year. The Suez Canal, the traditional route between Europe and the Far East, handles as many as 19,000 vessels a year.
"For shipping companies, there are still some concerns about the northern route," said Sakai. "Ships need the assistance of ice-breakers, the draught in some areas is quite limited and the route is under the control of the Russia Federation.
"Currently, there is a limited number of ice breakers and ice-class vessels that can attempt the route," he said. "Insurance is also higher and the fact that it is only open through the summer season, even with the thinning ice, is a cause for concern among shipping firms."
Yet another concern was spelled out in a statement by Britain's Foreign Office, which has a dedicated Polar Regions Unit. "The UK is concerned about environmental protection and sustainable development and will seek to promote and support our business interests in these areas in line with our legal obligations as parties to international agreements relevant to the Arctic," the statement read, adding that the British government was involved in developing a mandatory polar shipping code.
Cutting journey time by half
But all those fears are tempered by the advantages of sailing along Russia's northern coast. A cargo vessel transiting from Murmansk to a port in China will use as much as 40 percent less fuel than if it followed the Suez Canal route, said Yoshinori Miura, head of operations for the Norwegian firm Det Norske Veritas (DNV) in Tokyo. "And for a ship that only has to go from Europe to a port in South Korea, the journey can be cut from 38 days to just 19 days," he said.
Another advantage is that vessels emit far less pollution on the shorter route - carbon dioxide emissions could be reduced by 1.2 million tons a year by 2030 - while shipping firms are also able to avoid unstable parts of the world, such as waters off the Horn of Africa, where pirates regularly prey on merchant ships.
DNV recently conducted a study into the potential of the northern route and concluded that increasing demand will see transits increase to 500 a year by 2030 and 900 by 2050. There are clear benefits to businesses both in Europe and the Far East. China, Japan and South Korea were in May all granted observer status on the Arctic Council, the organization that sets policies on the region.