China’s largest state-owned shipping company has dispatched a cargo vessel to Rotterdam via the Northern Sea Route above Russia – which, assuming the journey is successful, will mark the first time a Chinese merchant vessel has traversed this formerly ice-bound Arctic seaway.

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The Northern Sea Route (historically referred to as the Northeast Passage) was – along with the Northwest Passage over Canada – something of a Holy Grail for mariners and merchants as far back as the 16th century. On 11 May 1553, for example, three ships – the Bona Esperanza, Bona Confidentia, and the Edward Bonaventure - set off amid great fanfare from London in search of just such a route.

The journey was the inaugural voyage of “The Mystery, Company, and Fellowship of Merchant Adventurers for the Discovery of Regions, Dominions, Islands, and Places Unknown” (later fortunately abridged to the Muscovy Company)  and it wasn’t entirely without success. The Edward Bonaventure made it as far as the port city of Archangel’sk, tarrying there while its captain made his way to Moscow, where he established ties with authorities and businessmen and opened trade with Russia.

Alas, the Edward Bonaventure had become separated from the other vessels during a storm; those two ships found a place of shelter to spend the winter, but by the time spring returned, cold and starvation had taken their toll and every crew member was dead.

A little over 40 years later, a Dutch expedition led by Danish explorer Willem Barents fared little better. Their ship became engulfed by pack ice, and the sound of the wooden hull creaking under the pack’s pressure “made all the hairs of our heads to rise upright with fear,” in the words of one crew member. They were forced to spend the winter ashore, where they had to endure the predatory attentions of ravenous polar bears and the threat of carbon monoxide poisoning from sealing every crack and crevice in a cabin they were warming with a coal stove. The following spring, with their ship damaged beyond repair, they set out for home in two small boats; but Barents died on an ice floe, as they waited for a lead to open through the ice.

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The Northeast Passage was finally traversed in its entirety, from west to east, by Finnish-Swedish explorer Adolf-Erik Nordenskjold, in 1878. In 1915, a Russian expedition made the journey from east to west; in 1935, the Soviet Union officially delineated the Northern Sea Route and opened it for commercial business.

For the Soviet Union, and subsequently for Russia, the Northern Sea Route has promised much in terms of convenience and wealth. It is the only waterway that lies entirely within national boundaries, and short stretches of it have long been used for internal shipping routes. But even with the existence of increasingly powerful icebreakers, the entirety of the route is navigable for only a short period each year. That, however, is changing.

A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that, as a result of climate change, the Northern Sea Route was likely to become largely or completely navigable by mid-century at latest. That would provide a substantial shortcut for vessels traveling from Asia to Europe, being perhaps 7,000 km and 12-15 days shorter than the equivalent journey through the Suez Canal.

Already, traffic is increasing. In 2010, for example, the administrators of the Northern Sea Route granted permission for four vessels to transit the icy seaway. Last year, that total had risen to 46. Earlier this month, the figure stood at 270. 

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China in particular has been eying developments with keen interest. Last year, a Chinese icebreaker crossed from the Pacific to the Barents Sea via the Northern Sea Route, before returning from Iceland to the Bering Strait across the North Pole. In April, Beijing signed a free trade deal with Iceland. In May, China applied for and received observer status at the Arctic Council. And now the China Ocean Shipping (Group) Company has formally launched service through what it calls the “golden water way” with the departure from Dalian of the 19,000 ton Hong Xing. It is expected to arrive in Rotterdam on September 11.

All the indications are that this is just the beginning – for China and other maritime nations. As one Russian official recently proudly proclaimed to President Vladimir Putin, “The Northern Sea Route is open for business.”

Photo of Russian icebreaker “Yamal” plowing through ice in the Northern Sea Route by VyKyKorrektor via Wikimedia Commons