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Ships take to Arctic Ocean as sea ice melts

Shipping companies are increasingly using the Arctic Ocean as a quick way to get from Europe to the Far East as melting sea ice opens up a lucrative new trade route.
Image: Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks ice
Arctic sea ice — seen here providing some work for U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy near Barrow, Alaska, in July 2006 — has melted to the extent that the Arctic Ocean is becoming a new trade route.Prentice Danner / U.S. Coast Guard via AP file
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The search for the Northwest Passage was once the preserve of explorers hoping to find a lucrative new trade route linking Europe with the Far East.

Now the decline in the amount of ice in the Arctic Ocean is turning their failed dream into a reality.

Between 1906 and 2006 only 69 ships made the journey but in 2009 alone 24 vessels made the journey, according to Canadian maritime law expert Michael Byers, Germany's Der Spiegel newspaper reported.

Icelandic President Olafur Ragnar Grímsson recently claimed that the route was becoming a "trans-Arctic Panama Canal," the paper said.

Der Spiegel reported that new ships are being designed to cope with icebergs on the journey.

The MV Nordic Barents is due to arrive in the Chinese port of Lianyungang after a 3,500-mile journey through the Arctic Ocean from the Norwegian port of Kirkenes, the newspaper said. A Russian icebreaker sent to protect the ship, which was carrying iron ore concentrate, was not needed with broken ice floes only passing nearby twice.

"The nuclear icebreaker was more for decoration than anything else ... and we didn't have to stop once," Felix Tschudi, a spokesman for the shipping company which chartered the freighter, told Der Spiegel.

Tschudi said the MV Nordic Barents's journey time was half what it would have been. "That saved us 15 days at sea," Tschudi added.

The Russian tanker Baltika, carrying 70,000 tons of gas condensate, also traveled a few weeks ago from the Russian port of Murmansk to the Chinese city of Ningbo through the Arctic without incident, the newspaper added.

However, the danger of sea ice remains.

"Even during the summer months, you have to expect isolated ice floes," climate researcher Lawson Brigham, a former icebreaker captain who co-authored a comprehensive study of the new Arctic sea routes, told Der Spiegel.

Plans for two new nuclear icebreakers were announced at an Arctic conference in Moscow last week with an adjustable draft which enables them to operate in shallow waters, it reported.

The dangers of sea ice were illustrated in a crash between two tankers in July off the coast of the New Siberian Islands, Der Spiegel said. The tankers, both loaded with 13,300 tons of diesel, collided when the lead ship slowed down because of large amounts of ice.

The Murmansk Shipping Company, which owns the ships, said the accident caused only minor dents and was "no emergency," according to Der Spiegel.

Brigham warned against too much optimism about the potential for the route, because of the unpredictable nature of the sea ice. He does not foresee large numbers of vessels traveling between Europe and the Far East.

"What will really increase is the removal of huge amounts of raw materials from the Arctic," he told the newspaper.