Pacific Nations Take Advantage of Arctic Sea Routes

As the headlines today are dominated by shrieking reports over the rate of the melting Arctic Sea ice, several nations of the Pacific are taking advantage of this fact, in pursuit of new Arctic sea routes. While many immediately assume that this fact of melting Arctic ice means than human economic activity must be halted, these nations are not so easily fooled.


USCGS Healy escorts Renda through Bering Sea

Japan’s NHK news service reports that cargo transport between Asia and Europe on the Northern Sea Route has increased nearly tenfold in the past 2 years.

Russian state firm Rosatomflot recently stated that more than one million tons of goods were shipped this year on this Arctic sea route. The figure for 2010 was about 110,000 tons. The firm said petroleum products and iron ore accounted for a large part of the shipments. Around 60 percent of the cargo was transported from Europe and Russia to Asia.

This is attracting attention as vessels could cut travel time between Europe and Asia to two-thirds compared to a route through the Suez Canal. It's also regarded safer for avoiding pirate attacks off the Horn of Africa.

The increase in freight volume on the route is attributed to the sharp decline in Arctic ice. Recent moves by the Russian government of President Vladimir Putin to expand the country's interests in the Arctic Ocean are believed to be another factor. The Russian Minister of Transportation announced that a new port would be built along the Northern Sea Route at Sabetta on the Ob Bay, which will begin to develop the extensive natural gas resources on the Yamal Peninsula. Major construction projects of new ice-breakers and all-weather craft to deal with the increased activity scheduled for the Arctic are planned.

In the past, large surface ships from Russia have ventured into this region only if accompanied by an icebreaker, but lower Arctic ice levels have allowed the Northern Sea Route to be used more freely. For decades, surface ships of Russia's Northern Fleet have left Murmansk only to the west, into the Atlantic, never sailing eastward along the Arctic coast, but this is no longer the case. A Rosatomflot official said most Asian firms currently using the route are Chinese and South Korean. But the official expressed hope that Japanese companies would also make more use of the Arctic route.

The Chinese icebreaker Xuelong (Snow Dragon) is the first Chinese ship to have sailed from the Pacific to the Atlantic through the Arctic territory of Russia on the Northern Sea Route. The vessel docked in Reykjavik, Iceland Aug. 14, after having traversed the route through the Russian Arctic. Expedition leader Yang Huigen said that they had expected much more ice than they had encountered.

"To our astonishment, most of the Northern Sea Route is open," Yang said. He indicated that Beijing was mightily interested in the "monumental change" in the polar environment. "It took only 10 days to sail from the East Siberian Sea to the Barents Sea, and during that time there was only real pack ice for only seven days," said Egill Thor Nielssen, an Icelandic scientist who sailed aboard the Chinese vessel.

The Chinese are more interested in this route now, having found the passage so easy, Nielsen said. China has also applied to become a member of the Arctic Council. Although primarily utilized to support the Chinese research in Antarctica, the Xuelonghas also made four trips to the Arctic via the Bering Strait.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg held summit talks in Oslo, Norway, and signed a memorandum of understanding pledging to help shipping firms of their nations open new sea lanes over the Arctic. "Prime Minister Stoltenberg and I agreed to forge a future-oriented partnership aimed at tackling climate change and environment-friendly development and preservation of the Arctic, in order to proactively deal with tasks of the 21st Century," Lee said. (South Korea is notable for talking "green", but then going ahead with actual development.)

Stoltenberg said Norway actively supports Seoul's Arctic initiative and hopes South Korea will assume permanent observer status in the Arctic Council. Lee said Norway promised to back Seoul's bid for observer status at a council meeting next spring. The Arctic Council is an eight-member intergovernmental forum established to promote cooperation on common Arctic issues.

The two countries signed another MOU, calling for cooperation in environment-friendly shipbuilding. Shipbuilding is the main area of economic exchange between the two countries, accounting for half of their trade. Agreement was also made for boosting cooperation in exploration, development, and storage of oil.

Venturing into the Arctic with a real development perspective can and should absolutely be the policy of the United States. In addition to taking advantage of these Arctic sea routes, major components of the NAWAPA XXI project would require such physical economic development of the North American Arctic.

For more on U.S. operations in the Arctic, see this blog from one year ago on a US Senate hearing on Coast Guard Operations in the Arctic .

The broader vision of the Arctic as our “Window to Space” is also featured in the LPAC report from last year, entitled, “Self-Developing Systems and Arctic Development: Economics for the Future of Mankind” .

Russian scientists like Vladimir Vernadsky and Dmitri Mendeleev saw great promise for economic and scientific development in the Arctic. As Mendeleev wrote:

“Conquering the polar ice is especially desirable and necessary for man’s direct industrial use, at least as much as it is for the triumph of knowledge.”

written by Meghan Rouillard with contributions from EIR

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The international angle of accomplishing a new, global development perspective characterized by Glass-Steagall and NAWAPA will be fostered through a close partnership between the United States, Russia, and China. This page is a continuing exploration of the potentials of that arrangement.