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A Container Ship Is Traversing the Northern Sea Route for the First Time

Taking the Northeast Passage radically reduces the distance from East Asia to Northern Europe, saving tons of fuel. There's some serious environmental irony in this.
Photo: Roman Boed/Flickr

An important historic event is in the making: For the first time a container ship will sail the Northern Sea Route through the Russian Arctic, traveling from China to Amsterdam. The journey, which began on August 8 and is expected to be completed on September 11, is only now possible due to high levels of Arctic sea ice melt that have occurred in the past several years.

The Barents Observer reports the 19,000-ton Yong Sheng, a container ship operated by China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO)—though not the exact one pictured at the top of this article—left port in China in the first week of August and is now in the Russian Arctic.


For a few years now the Northern Sea Route has become passable in summer, at least by vessels designed for icy Arctic waters. Last summer an icebreaker became the first Chinese vessel to make the passage. In 2010, a Norwegian vessel carrying iron ore to China became the first non-Russian vessel to complete the journey.

This year alone, Russia has allowed 204 ships of varying types to make the journey, with COSCO gaining permission to make two more sailings this year along the route. Russia's largest shipping company already offers non-containerized shipping along the route for six months of the year.

Image: Wikipedia

The Northern Sea Route, also known as the Northeast Passage, runs along the entire northern coast of Russia, across Siberia, before emptying into the Bering Strait and Pacific Ocean. Historically it has been ice free in parts for about two months of the year, but in recent years it has become passable because of climate change on Arctic ice melt.

In terms of energy use and finance, utilizing the Northern Sea Route cuts the number of days it takes to ship goods from East Asia to Northern Europe, as well as the amount of fuel consumed in doing so—the Norwegian journey in 2010 saved $180,000 on fuel, as the distance traveled across the top of the world is one-third shorter than it would be otherwise.

There's some serious environmental irony in this. The reason that the Northern Sea Route is now so frequently passable is due to increased consumption of fossil fuels leading to climate change and melting sea ice, opening up a shipping route that saves tremendous amounts of fuel, thereby theoretically enabling greater transport of goods and raw materials, all of which help create the conditions that opened up the route in the first place.

All things considered it's equally amazing and ominous.