Could climate change turn the Russian Arctic into a northern alternative to the Suez Canal?
Some Russians think so, as they add up the results from their Arctic summer shipping season, which closed on November 28. There were a record 47 crossings by ships moving cargo between Asia and Europe -- almost 12 times the number of two years ago.
The difference? Melting Arctic ice.
In September, American satellites recorded the greatest shrinkage of Arctic ice since record-keeping started 33 years ago. This summer, ice retreated to 3.4 million square kilometers -- about half the average levels recorded in the 1980s and 1990s.
With more open water, U.S. hydrologists predict that cargo volumes will increase this decade by 50 times from this year's level. For northern Europe, the Russian Arctic route can cut 7,000 kilometers off the standard trip to Asia through Egypt's Suez Canal.
China is taking notice, sending its first ship through Russia's Arctic passage. The icebreaker "Snow Dragon" sailed from China to Iceland and back, docking in Shanghai in September.
Sergei Balmasov, a Russian who runs the Arctic Logistics Information Office in northern Norway, says open water and a five-month season allowed several cargo ships to make round-trip runs across the top of Russia this summer.
"The biggest obstacle is the lack of the ships," Balmasov says. "And also the lack of the cargoes available to be transported."
About half of the cargoes were petroleum products, including the first passage of liquefied natural gas -- a voyage from Norway to Japan.
Ivan Blokov, a campaign director for Greenpeace Russia, warns that oil tankers threaten the fragile ecology of the Arctic.
"Transporting oil or any other dangerous substance through the Northern Route should be excluded with 100-percent guarantee," Blokov says. "Because you can never be sure there will be no accident."
Blokov recently visited the port in Alaska where the "Exxon Valdez" tanker spilled about half a million barrels of oil in 1989. He says it took 15 years and billions of dollars to clean up. Greenpeace commissioned a study of what would happen if there is a similar spill in Russia’s Arctic.
"The conclusion of the scientists is that a maximum of 10 percent of the spilled oil can be collected, and that a few thousands of kilometers of Arctic shore can be polluted," Blokov says.
Balmasov, the advocate of Russia's Northern shipping route, says world shipping rules have dramatically improved in the nearly quarter-century since oil spilled from the "Exxon Valdez," a single-hulled tanker.
"The general approach is not to have any accidents at all," Balmasov says. "Russia now has very strict regulations in terms of environment. All ships must be double bottom."
He adds that international insurance companies charge about the same amount for an ice-class vessel to make a summer passage through Russia's Arctic as they do for vessels going through the Suez Canal and into the pirate-infested waters off East Africa.
Expect The Unexpected
Everyone agrees that captains venturing into Arctic waters should be prepared for the unexpected.
In August, American author Hampton Sides traveled on a tour boat through the Bering Strait into what should have open waters of the Russian Arctic.
"We were smashing through ice fields," Sides says. "The ship was shuddering and ground to a halt several times and [we] pick[ed] our way through other leads in the ice to get where we were going."
Unexpected high winds had pushed ice to where it was not supposed to be. Sides said of the ship captain, a Russian with many years of experience in the high north, that "he had been in the Arctic many times...[but] was surprised, and quite worried. You could see the worry on his face. This was unexpected."
Tourists were disappointed. They had spent thousands of dollars to see polar bears on Russia's Wrangel Island.
"For many years, because there has been no ice, the polar bears have been going there in large, large numbers," Sides says. "And this particular summer, we couldn’t find any polar bears on the island because they were out on the ice, where they really want to be."
A lesson of climate change in Russia's Arctic may be: expect the unexpected.