An icebreaker has become the first ship from China to cross the Arctic Ocean. It is a major feat for an economic powerhouse, looking to capitalize on new trade routes to the far north.
A record thaw caused by climate change is allowing the world’s 2nd largest economy to reach the Arctic — a land rich in oil and gas. It is also a potential commercial shipping route between the north Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
The icebreaker Xuelong, or Snow Dragon, arrived in Iceland this week after sailing the Northern Route along the coast of Russia. Huigen Yang was the expedition leader, and is also head of the Polar Research Institute of China. Yang told Reuters TV that he expected a lot more ice along the route at this time of year than the vessel encountered. He went on to say, “To our astonishment, most parts of the Northern Sea Route is open.”
Reports say the icebreaker will return to China by a route closer to the North Pole.
Sea ice currently floating on the Arctic Ocean is on track to beat a record low set in 2007. This makes the region more accessible, but threatens the hunting lifestyles of indigenous peoples and wildlife such as polar bears and seals.
The thaw is slowly opening up the Arctic as a short-cut route. For example, the German-based Beluga Group sent a cargo vessel north from Korea to Rotterdam in 2009.
According to the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center, Arctic sea ice extent fell to 5.09 million square km (1.97 million square miles) on August 13. That’s an area smaller than Brazil. Sea ice reaches its smallest in September before expanding again as winter approaches.
China has overtaken the United States as the top greenhouse gas emitter, ahead of the European Union, India and Russia. This comes mainly from burning fossil fuels.
“China’s interest is a mix of business, science and geo-politics,” Jan Gunnar Winther, director of the Norwegian Polar Institute, told Reuters. He went on to say that for countries outside the region like China, there may be more opportunities to supply equipment to aid drilling.
For example, South Korea’s Hyundai is building a floating production unit for the Goliat oilfield in Norway’s Barents Sea.
Meanwhile, China has applied to become an observer at the Arctic Council. The group is made up of the United States, Russia, Canada, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark and Iceland. Reports say china’s application is to be handled in May of next year.