Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Arctic shipping: The Northwest Passage

Update 14 Jul 2017: China Plans Arctic Belt and Road Initiatives

When China convened its Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in May, most of the attention focused on the initiative’s plans for transportation infrastructure across the Eurasian landmass and the Indian Ocean. Since then, however, China formally incorporated the Arctic into its plans for maritime cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative, also sometimes called One Belt, One Road.

The Vision for Maritime Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative, released on June 20 by China’s National Development and Reform Commission and the State Oceanic Administration, explains that a “blue economic passage” is “envisioned leading up to Europe via the Arctic Ocean.”

This “blue economic passage” would be along Russia’s Northern Sea Route, the Arctic shipping lane that hugs the country’s north coast. Over email, Dr Marc Lanteigne, a Senior Lecturer in Security Studies at Massey University in New Zealand and a China expert, explained, “This paper is the first official confirmation that the Arctic Ocean is among the ‘blue economic passages’ Beijing is seeking to develop.”

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Arctic shipping? Still a dream

For centuries, a harsh climate & ice-choked seas dashed the dreams of sailors attempting to cross the Canadian Northwest Passage between Asia & Europe. Now, thanks to climate change & reduced ice cover, the trip is not nearly so daunting. This month, the Crystal Serenity, a luxury cruise ship, carried a record thousand-plus passengers and crew through the passage. Next year, it will do the same.

Does this mean that the age-old vision of a time-saving, money-making Arctic passage for the world’s shippers is finally coming true? Do not bet on it.

In theory, it is a terrific idea. Travelling from Shanghai to Rotterdam via the Northwest Passage is about 3,540km shorter than going through the Panama Canal. In 2013, the Nordic Orion became the first bulk cargo carrier to traverse the passage. Bound for Finland from Vancouver, it shaved more than 1,600km - & US$200,000 (S$271,800) - off a more typical route.

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Giant cruise ship heads to Arctic on pioneering journey
The Crystal Serenity cruise ship is attempting to become the 1st such vessel to navigate the Northwest Passage in a voyage that has been criticised by environmental groups. Foto: AFP

It is a voyage explorers only dreamt of not so long ago.

But thanks to climate change, a luxury cruise ship has undertaken a pioneering journey that will see it sail through the once impassable Northwest Passage during a month-long trip that is drawing much excitement but also criticism from environmentalists.

The Crystal Serenity, which set off from Seward, Alaska on August 16 with nearly 1,000 passengers, is scheduled to dock in New York on Sep 17.

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China wants ships to use faster Arctic route opened by global warming
Ships sail on the Yangtze river near Shanghai November 5, 2013. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Ships sail on the Yangtze river near Shanghai November 5, 2013. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

China will encourage ships flying its flag to take the Northwest Passage via the Arctic Ocean, a route opened up by global warming, to cut travel times between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, a state-run newspaper said on Wednesday.

China is increasingly active in the polar region, becoming one of the biggest mining investors in Greenland and agreeing to a free trade deal with Iceland.

Shorter shipping routes across the Arctic Ocean would save Chinese companies time and money. For example, the journey from Shanghai to Hamburg via the Arctic route is 2,800 nautical miles shorter than going by the Suez Canal.

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Beijing urges China-flagged ships to use Arctic route

China will encourage ships flying its flag to take the Northwest Passage via the Arctic Ocean — a route opened up by global warming — to cut travel time between the Atlantic & Pacific oceans, said a state-run newspaper yesterday.

China’s Maritime Safety Administration this month released a 356-page guide in Chinese offering detailed route guidance from the northern coast of North America to the northern Pacific, said the China Daily.

“Once this route is commonly used, it will directly change global maritime transport and have a profound influence on international trade, the world economy, capital flow and resource exploitation,” ministry spokesman Liu Pengfei was quoted as saying. Chinese ships will sail through the Northwest Passage “in the future”, added Mr Liu, without giving a time frame.

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Ship crosses Northwest Passage, sails into history
The Nordic Orion along the Northern Sea route, along the north coast of Russia, in this undated handout photo

Sometime between Sunday and Monday evenings, Greenwich Mean Time, the bulk carrier Nordic Orion passed through the Northwest Passage and into Baffin Bay, sailing into history as it went.

The ship – a 225-metre, ice-strengthened carrier loaded with B.C. coal bound for Finland – became the first bulk carrier to make the voyage, which has lured explorers for more than a century and has long been eyed as a commercial route.

Until the Nordic Orion, however, the passage was travelled mostly by icebreakers, tugs and small cargo ships hauling supplies to northern communities, as well as adventurers undertaking the journey in rowboats and even Jet Skis.

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Northwest Passage crossed by first cargo ship, the Nordic Orion, heralding new era of Arctic commercial activity
Ice-strengthened sea freighter the Nordic Orion has become the first bulk carrier to traverse the Northwest Passage through Canada's Arctic waters, heralding a new era of commercial activity in the Arctic

An ice-strengthened sea freighter has become the first bulk carrier to traverse the Northwest Passage through Canada’s Arctic waters, heralding a new era of commercial activity in the Arctic.

Travelling with a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker, the 75,000 deadweight-tonne Nordic Orion left Vancouver on Sept. 17 carrying 15,000 metric tons of coal. It is currently off Nuuk, Greenland, where it let a Canadian Arctic adviser off board.

“The Northwest Passage is more than 1,000 nautical miles shorter than the traditional shipping route through the Panama Canal and will save time, fuel and reduce carbon dioxide emissions,” said Nordic Bulk Carriers, the Danish owner of the ship.

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Why the icy Arctic matters to Singapore
Ice floes in Baffin Bay above the Arctic Circle. Melting icecaps will submerge coastal areas in S'pore & affect shipping routes. Foto: AP/The Canadian Press

The Arctic may be remote, but melting ice caps caused by climate change will have far-reaching effects, submerging coastal areas in places such as S'pore and altering global shipping routes.

This has driven Singapore’s participation as a permanent observer in the Arctic Council in the last 3 years, and prompted preparations to adapt, said Minister of State (Prime Minister’s Office and Manpower) Sam Tan in an interview with TODAY.

“We have been given 1st-hand information by scientists that if the current trend continues, sea levels may rise by half a metre within the next 50 years, and by a metre within a century,” said Mr Tan, who has been the political office-holder representing Singapore in Arctic Council meetings.

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What is the connection between Singapore and the Arctic region?
Crew members of an icebreaker in the Arctic Ocean. S'pore & other parts of the world are quite closely connected to the Arctic because of climate change, global warming and weather patterns. Foto: Reuters/Nasa

One country is a small tropical island near the equator, & the other, an icy region near the northern tip of the Earth. But both Singapore & the Artic region share common concerns in climate change and global warming, with many potential areas for cooperation, said Minister of State (Prime Minister’s Office, Manpower) Sam Tan in a speech at the Arctic Circle Greenland Forum last week held in Nuuk, Greenland.

He listed several collaborations, such as the development of maritime infrastructure to facilitate safe shipping as new sea routes open in the Arctic, and exchanges between universities in climate change and sustainable development research.

Singapore has been a permanent observer on the Arctic Council since 2013.

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This Russian ship may spell the end of Singapore’s prosperity
 Set to sail in 2014, the Baltika is a vessel Singapore cannot ignore

The Northern Sea Route

The ship’s name is Baltika. You would expect this vessel to be a military one with advanced weaponry. It is not.

Baltika is an icebreaker. While conventional icebreakers do their job by sailing head-on or rear-on into ice, Baltika does so sideways.

This 76 million euro vessel was ordered by the Russian Ministry of Transport in 2011 and built by Finnish company Arctech. It is scheduled to be delivered to Russia in the spring of 2014.

Russia mulls new agency for polar shipping
Shipping on Russia’s northern sea route can cut time and money off of transportation costs between Europe and China. (IMAGE BY HUGO AHLENIUS/ UNEP/GRID-ARENDAL)

Russia may establish a new bureau to oversee growing shipping traffic through its Arctic Northern Sea Route, report the Barents Observer and Voice of Russia.

The Northern Sea Route administration would provide navigational and hydrographic information to ships travelling through the Arctic Ocean over the top of Russia, in a route sometimes also called the Northeast Passage.

Traffic is already growing on this route, which cuts one-third of the travel time off a trip between European and Asian ports through the Suez Canal.

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The Northern Sea Route
A graphical comparison between use of the North East Passage (blue) and an alternative route through the Suez Canal (red)

The Northern Sea Route (Russian: Се́верный морско́й путь, Severnyy morskoy put, shortened to Севморпуть, Sevmorput) is a shipping lane officially defined by Russian legislation from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean specifically running along the Russian Arctic coast from Kara Gates strait between the Barents Sea and the Kara Sea, along Siberia, to the Bering Strait. The entire route lies in Arctic waters and parts are free of ice for only two months per year. Before the beginning of the 20th century it was called the Northeast Passage, and is still sometimes referred to by that name.

History - The motivation to navigate the North East Passage was initially economic. In Russia, the idea of a possible seaway connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific was first put forward by the diplomat Gerasimov in 1525. However, Russian settlers and traders on the coast of the White Sea, the Pomors, had been exploring parts of the route as early as the 11th century.

During a voyage across the Barents Sea in search of the North East Passage in 1553, English explorer Hugh Willoughby thought he saw islands to the north, and islands called Willoughby's Land were shown on maps published by Plancius and Mercator in the 1590s and they continued to appear on maps by Jan Janssonius and Willem Blaeu into the 1640s. By the 17th century, traders had established a continuous sea route from Arkhangelsk to the Yamal Peninsula, where they portaged to the Gulf of Ob. This route, known as the Mangazeya seaway, after its eastern terminus, the trade depot of Mangazeya, was an early precursor to the Northern Sea Route.