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Bye pirates, hello Northeast Passage

September 3, 2010 - Elmer W. Cagape

Climate change may have delivered a solution to the risk faced by ships and crew passing through the waters of Gulf of Aden. A cargo ship bearing Hong Kong flag carrying 41,000 tons of iron ore will become part of maritime history as it sails from Norway to China through Russia’s arctic passage instead of the pirate-infested Somalian waters.

Although Nordic Barents is not the first ship to pass through the Arctic wasteland, it becomes the first foreign-registered vessel allowed by Russia to make a voyage between two non-Russian ports. The ship’s owner aims to prove that the route would become a viable alternative to the longer southern route from Europe to Asia. Nordic Barents is scheduled to leave the small Norwegian port of Kirkenes and head towards the Chinese port of Dalian. If the trip proves successful, the route enters one more step in competing against the Suez Canal sea route.

The first ship to do so was Russian-owned Baltica, which transported 70,000 tons of gas condensate from Murmansk, Russia to Ningbo, China only last week. The successful voyage marks a successful commercial conquest over the famed Northeast Passage. At the most dangerous stretch of the journey – the Vilkitsky Strait – sailors onboard the Baltica threw flowers into the water in memory of all the men who have died in pursuit of a quicker trade route in the past. For centuries, explorers and cargo shop owners have been looking for that elusive northern route between Europe and Asia. 

In 1553, Sir Hugh Willoughby was commissioned by the Company of Merchant Adventurers to New Lands to explore the trade path. However, his expedition hit a major snag as his ship got stuck in ice resulting in the crew freezing to death. Dutch adventurer William Barents also suffered a similar fate in 1597. He, at least, had the Barents Sea named in his honor.

With receding ice levels and a warmer climate, present-day navigators could achieve what historic explorers couldn’t. Shorter trips — Baltica’s voyage of 13,000 kilometers is certainly much shorter than the 22,000-kilometer journey through the Suez Canal — which also means fuel savings and a reduced carbon footprint.

But not not every ship can pass through this frigid zone. Bulk carriers need to be ice-strengthened, and apply necessary precaution to protect sensitive equipment on board. Russian ice-breakers need to escort them in case of breakdown or the crew falling sick amid extreme weather conditions. Also, this path is only available for a few weeks a year at the moment. As climate change further alters the ecological landscape, the Northeast Passage may be available for longer stretches of time. Until that happens, Russia needs a bit more convincing by ship owners that crossing its northern territories not only saves fuel and cuts travel time. Ship owners need to be assured that goods transported using this alternate route can safely arrive at its destination. 

Should the Northeast Passage become a viable alternative to the Suez and Cape of Good Hope, pirates terrorizing Gulf of Aden can expect fewer potential victims.

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