Stockholm/Oslo (dpa) - Shipping in the Arctic region is predicted
to boom as ice sheets that formerly proved impenetrable recede due to
global warming, opening up faster sea routes between Europe and Asia.
The increased activity in the sea lanes in Arctic waters off northern Russia and Norway reflects climate change, but also economic shifts, with more transports of oil and liquid natural gas (LNG) going to energy-hungry markets in Asia.
Surveys of the receding sea ice have been issued during the UN climate change summit in Doha, where delegates have wrangled on how to curb greenhouse gas emissions that drive the melt.
The World Meteorological Organization reported last week that Arctic sea ice melted to a record seasonal low this year, with preliminary data showing that ice around the North Pole shrunk to 3.41 million square kilometres in September, 18 per cent less than the previous low in 2007.
While climate experts say reduced ice coverage sets the stage for a host of long-term environmental impacts, those with commercial interests in mind see a pathway to new markets.
"We see that ships go east, reflecting that the markets are in the east," said Gunnar Sander, senior advisor at the Norwegian Polar Research Institute, located in Tromso above the Arctic Circle.
For example, the Snow White natural gas field off northern Norway had been envisaged to provide LNG for the United States, but recent developments in shale gas production has resulted in less US demand for LNG from Norway.
However, the 2011 tsunami and earthquake in Japan resulted in the shutdown of most of the country's nuclear reactors, which "has driven a search for alternative energy sources including LNG," Sander said.
Illustrating that development is a LNG tanker, the Ob River, that this week completed the voyage from Hammerfest off northern Norway to Japan, joining other vessels such as oil tankers that have plied the icy route.
The vessel, operated by Dynagas, departed northern Norway in early November. The company said ice was between 30 and 40 centimetres thick, but there were no problems reported.
In addition to needing enforced hulls to navigate the icy waters, vessels have been escorted by Russian nuclear-powered ice-breakers. While this adds cost, the benefit of the Northeast Passage is a 20-day shorter trip compared to traveling south through the Suez Canal.
There were four voyages through the Northeast Passage in 2010, 34 in 2011 and 46 this year.
"Of the 34 ships that plied the Northeast Passage last year, only 10 navigated the whole route, the others were between Russian harbours," Sander said.
By comparison, he noted there were 18,000 passages through the Suez Canal in 2011.
Environmental groups have warned of the risk of oil spills in the region's fragile waters. Other challenges include improving rescue and search facilities along the route.
Russia has planned 10 centres to respond to such emergencies, with three having opened this year.
This number "is not sufficient for a full-scale transport system," Sander said. "The Arctic states and the IMO (International Maritime Organization) have to step up measures to ensure safe transports."
The Norwegian Society for the Conservation of Nature has also warned of "grave consequences for the environment and maritime life" in case of an accident, Lars Haltbrekken of the group told Norwegian public broadcaster NRK.
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