A historic voyage has been quietly unfolding at the top end of the globe – a trip that promises to have ongoing implications for trade, geopolitics and the planet.
For the first time, a commercial vessel has sailed across the Northern Sea Route (NSR) during the month of February, a time that has historically been unviable due to the prohibitive amount of ice during winter.
A Russian ship carrying liquefied natural gas (LNG) has made its way from Jiangsu in China to the remote Arctic terminal of Sabetta in Russia, making the historic journey, The Barents Observer reported.
Video of the trip has been shared by the shipping company Sovcomflot while its CEO has proclaimed the successful voyage "expands the navigation window in the eastern sector of the Russian Arctic, and confirms that year-round safe navigation is possible."
The Northern Sea Route, which traces the coasts of Siberia and Norway, is the region’s busiest artery. It allows cargo ships to save at least 10 days sailing between Europe and Asia.
'A dangerous turning point'
The melting Arctic has been watched closely by countries like China and Russia who are looking to take advantage of the increasingly available shipping lanes. But scientists have lamented the latest milestone, and are sounding the alarm about further environmental degradation due to increased shipping activity.
"There is an incentive to seize the economic opportunity of the melting Arctic," says Associate Professor Nengye Liu, an expert in international polar law at Macquarie University.
"This is an ongoing trend," he told Yahoo News Australia.
"It is also a very dangerous turning point."
While Russia and China, "are the most active" in the region's shipping lanes, the melting of the Arctic and the Russian permafrost "has already caused environmental and social problems in those far away communities," he said.
Harvard professor and lecturer in international security, Juliette Kayyem, said news of the voyage was a "consequential" moment.
"The Arctic has now opened for business year-round, the result of climate change. This moment — so consequential you can’t get your head around it — launches a geopolitical struggle for ownership of a place, sea routes and ocean resources that were all once uninhabitable," she tweeted.
Others meanwhile lamented the hastening of the effects of climate change.
"We are in a climate emergency," said meteorologist and climate journalist Eric Holthaus.
"No multi-year ice. On the northern sea route. In February. Let that sink in a moment," another Twitter user said.
Rise in Arctic shipping traffic set to continue
Both traffic and competition over the strategic sea route is expected to ramp up in the future – a trend that has been playing out in recent years.
That shortcut between Europe and Asia drew ships to make 2,694 voyages in 2019, up from 2,022 in 2018, 1,908 in 2017 and 1,705 in 2016, according to Nord University’s Centre for High North Logistics.
The increase in shipping is a worry for the environment. As those heavy ships burn fuel, they release climate-warming carbon dioxide as well as black soot. That soot blankets nearby ice and snow, absorbing solar radiation rather than reflecting it back out of the atmosphere, which exacerbates warming in the region.
While the Polar Code, signed in 2017, provides the rules for shipping vessels in the polar regions, many of the environmental protections in the code are not mandatory, Prof Liu says.
"I don't think it's enough ... the Arctic's ecosystem is so vulnerable."
The Arctic has already warmed at least twice as fast as the rest of the world over the last three decades. With the region’s warming rate increasing in recent years, governments have simply sought to gear up for a future of open Arctic waters.
Russia in particular is driving trade through the region by developing energy and mineral projects in the Arctic. President Vladimir Putin has set a target of transporting 80 million tonnes of cargo annually via the Northern Sea Route by 2025, more than twice what it ships today.
There is also an expectation both China and Russia will seek to control the crucial shipping lanes to the detriment of other nations.
As The Economist pointed out in 2018, year round shipping in the Northern Sea Route is becoming increasingly important.
"The prospects of the NSR would also improve if the world should become less stable. More piracy around the Horn of Africa, more congestion in the Strait of Malacca, more terrorist attacks in the Suez Canal: all render control of the Northern Sea Route strategically important. Facing little competition from America, Russia and China will have the upper hand."
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