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Chinese Cargo Ship Embarks on First Arctic Voyage


The Northern Sea Route has captured the imagination of sailors and explorers through the ages, as well as bringing some unlucky souls to their early deaths in frigid waters. The crew of the Yong Sheng, a 19,000-ton Chinese cargo ship, almost certainly won’t risk that fate in its voyage from Dalian in northeast China, around Norway, to Rotterdam in the Netherlands. But it will secure the distinction of being the first Chinese ship to make the trip via the northern route, reports the FT.

Explorers like James Cook coveted the Northern Sea Route as a possible shortcut for trading vessels traveling between Asia and Europe. Today it can save ships as many as 15 days over the usual route through the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean. And thanks to climate change, it is becoming a more financially attractive route for shipping companies—albeit one that is open for only a few months out of the year.

The big questions are by how much and for how long each year will the ice recede. “The estimates vary,” Keith Gessen wrote in the New Yorker in December, “but scientists agree that at some point this century the minimum extent [of the Arctic ice], at the end of the summer season, will reach zero. At that point, you’ll be able to cross the North Pole in a canoe.”

Territorial disputes over the Arctic waters have already begun. Resource grabbing too. “Oil companies, armed with new technology and lured by less menacing winter conditions, will be able to establish drilling platforms in latitudes that were previously off limits, and shipping companies will be able to save time and money through the Arctic shortcut.” That time is not yet upon us. It will still be some years before the Northern Sea Route is reliably clear of icebergs and the Arctic is warm enough to drill in.

The cause of the melting ice is, of course, the subject of much debate, as is what to do about it. Human activity has certainly played a role, though the Russians on Gessen’s voyage laughed at his global warming talk: “So the UN did a study, huh?” one asked him sarcastically. “Well if the UN says it’s true, it must be true.” “This stuff is cyclical,” said another.

What’s not up for debate is the fact that the ice is melting. As in James Cook’s time, fortune favors the brave and the quick: the Yong Sheng is not the first cargo ship to venture this way, but it is one of the earliest ones. Companies and nations that get a jump on the competition in the race for the Arctic might find that the rewards—in trade, in access to natural resources, in other opportunities—are worth a little chill.

[Cargo ship photo courtesy Shutterstock.]

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