For a ship on a mission of worldwide importance, the Yong Sheng is a distinctly unimpressive sight. The grey and green hull of the 19,000-tonne cargo vessel, operated by China’s state-owned Cosco Group, is streaked with rust, while its cargo of steel and heavy equipment would best be described as prosaic.
Yet the Yong Sheng’s journey, which began on 8 August from Dalian, a port in north-eastern China, to Rotterdam is being watched with fascination by politicians and scientists. They are intrigued, not by its cargo, but by its route – for the Yong Sheng is headed in the opposite direction from the Netherlands and sailing towards the Bering Strait that separates Russia and Alaska. Once through the strait, it will enter the Arctic Ocean, where it will attempt one of the most audacious voyages of modern seafaring: sailing through one of the Arctic’s fabled passages, the Northern Sea Route.
The passage, which hugs the coast of northern Russia, and its mirror route, the Northwest Passage, which threads its way through the islands and creeks of northern Canada, have claimed the lives of thousands of sailors who tried for centuries to cross the Arctic in an attempt to link the ports of the Far East and Europe by sailing via the north pole. Thick pack ice, violent storms and plummeting temperatures thwarted these endeavours.
But global warming has transformed the Arctic in recent years and its summer ice cover has dropped by more than 40% over the last few decades, raising the prospect that it may soon be possible to sail along the Arctic’s sea routes with ease – a notion that is proving irresistible to shipping lines, not to mention mining companies as well as oil and gas exploration firms. All believe the region is ripe for exploitation.
Several fairly large ships have already sailed the Northern Sea Route. However, the voyage of the Yong Sheng, backed by the Chinese government, has special significance. This is the first attempt by the world’s biggest exporter to exploit the Arctic’s disappearing ice to reach its biggest market – the European Union.
“We always knew global warming would affect the planet first in the Arctic, but we have been floored by the rapidity of that change,” said Mark Serreze, director of the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Colorado.
“Temperatures have risen dramatically. At this rate, I would expect the Arctic to be completely free of ice in summer by around 2030. That is why everyone has become so interested in the region.”
The attraction for China in opening up the Northern Sea Route is straightforward. According to Cosco, the Yong Sheng’s 3,380-mile journey will take about 35 days, shaving two weeks off the traditional route between Asia and Europe via the Suez Canal.
“The Arctic route can cut 12 to 15 days from traditional routes, so the maritime industry calls it the Golden Waterway,” Cosco said when it announced the Yong Sheng’s voyage. For good measure, the new route will avoid the pirate-invested waters of the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.
Making such cuts in transport times means major savings in fuel and lower costs for its products, hence China’s new enthusiasm for all things polar. Although its border goes nowhere near the Arctic, China recently gained observer status in the Arctic Council, a group of nations – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States – with major interests in the region. China, whose total foreign trade was worth $3.87tn (£2.5tn) last year, can see clear economic benefits from exploiting the warming that is gripping the planet and shrinking its northern sea ice shelves.
This point was stressed by Professor Qi Shaobin of Dalian Maritime University in China. Opening up the Arctic “will change the market pattern of the global shipping industry because it will shorten the maritime distance significantly among the Chinese, European and American markets”, he told Chinese state media last week.
And shipping figures certainly look encouraging. Russian authorities said last week they had already granted permission for more than 370 ships to sail the route this year. In 2012, only 46 ships sailed the entire length of the passage from Europe to Asia, while in 2010 only four vessels made the voyage.
In the wake of these figures, several proposals have been announced to take advantage of the expected expansion in Arctic shipping. Iceland is considering plans, backed by German entrepreneurs, to build a major port on its north-eastern shores. Similarly, Stornoway Port Authority in Scotland said last month that it was considering building a special port for Arctic ships so they could refuel and discharge cargoes into smaller vessels for onward shipment to Rotterdam, Le Havre, Liverpool or London. In addition, Valentin Davydants, captain of Russia’s Atomflot fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers, has estimated that 15m tonnes of cargo will use the full Northern Sea Route by 2021.