With Arctic ice melt, ships now ply the Northern Sea Route

northeastern passage
A Sovcomflot tanker, the SCF Baltica, in the Arctic's Laptev Sea off of Siberia. (Bloomberg photo)

Here is possibly one of the rare pluses of climate change.

Melting sea ice means that Arctic shipping is set for a record year, reports the Financial Times.

As of Tuesday, 232 ships had received permission from Russia's Northern Sea Route Administration to transit what used to be called the Northeastern Passage. 

How quickly things change.

in 2009, two German ships made history by navigating from South Korea to Rotterdam via the Northeast Passage.

 "Plenty have tried," noted a report in Time that year. "For centuries, sailors have searched for a shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through the icy waters off Russia's northern coast. Otherwise known as the Northern Sea Route, the passage — from Siberia to the Bering Strait — promised a speedy sea route between Europe and Asia for anyone who could make it. But caked in ice during winter and pretty much inhospitable because of floating ice in summer, the route has remained largely off-limits."

And then, the report noted, "Global warming may change that."

In 2010, four vessels sailed through the Northeastern route.

In 2012, 46 sailed through.

And now, 232. So far.

The northern route shaves ten days off the time to sail between Rotterdam and Kobe, in Japan, or Busan, in South Korea. Instead of 33 days via the Suez Canal, it takes 23 via the formerly ice-bound waters.

But the route is more treacherous, which fuels concerns about spills and other accidents.

Valentin Davydants, captain of Russia’s Atomflot fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers based in Murmansk, forecast a more than tenfold increase between Asia and Europe by 2021, by which time the route could be open eight months a year, the Financial Times reported.

Meanwhile, the Northwest Passage, atop North America, remains an iffier prospect for now.

A French adventurer is attempting to row through it at the moment. But so far it hasn't been viable for commercial shipping.

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