China's largest shipping company has announced it will begin container voyages through Russia's Northern Sea Route, another step in the opening up of the Arctic Ocean to international shipping.
European wire service Agence France-Presse reports that Chinese cargo-shipping giant, Cosco, will start regularly scheduled vessel service through the Northern Sea Route, also known as the Northeast Passage.
"This is significant," says Michael Byers, a Canada Research Chair at the University of British Columbia who specializes in Arctic issues.
"They are the first shipping company considering the possibility of regularly scheduled container ship traffic — the kind of traffic that is the backbone of the international trading system," he says.
Cosco reportedly completed a 55-day trip between China and Europe through the Northern Sea Route this month and did a similar trip in 2013.
Arctic shipping routes will cut shipping time down between Asian and European markets. Depending on departure and arrival ports, ships travelling through the Arctic Ocean can reach the Pacific or Atlantic oceans faster than the Panama Canal.
Implications for Northwest Passage
Arctic watchers say Cosco's announcement lays the groundwork for future container ship voyages through Canada's Arctic via the Northwest Passage.
"This is something that makes you pause and go, 'wow,'" says Robert Huebert, a University of Calgary professor who researches Arctic issues.
"It basically lays to rest a lot of the conversation that a lot of the naysayers have had.
"Once you have the traffic up there, what's to prevent it from going over the North Pole, so to speak, just simply going through the Northwest Passage?"
Canadian Coast Guard data show that as of Oct. 20, 25 vessels have sailed between Baffin Island and the Beaufort Sea this year, compared to 14 voyages in 2014. Most of them — 17 — were adventure seekers or pleasure crafts.
"The shipping is coming," Byers says. "It's just not going to be as significant and as cargo-oriented, in the sense of container ships, for a decade to come."
Byers says that's due to the ice that still chokes the Northwest Passage, even in warmer months.
"It's not that the ice is there all the time. It's just that it's unpredictable as to when the Northwest Passage might be open or when there will be ice in the way," Byers says.
Russia's Arctic route is attractive to shipping companies because the former Soviet Union built marine facilities such as ports during the Cold War and the country continues to invest in developing the shipping route.
Cosco has not provided a start date for its Arctic shipping operations. The company's Canadian offices haven't returned requests for comment.