For more than 130 years, thanks to the pioneering explorations of A. E. Nordenskiöld, people have known the daunting Northeast Passage, an Arctic shipping route that cuts atop the northern coasts of Europe and Asia, was surmountable. Like the Northwest Passage, first navigated by Roald Amundsen in a three-year voyage that ended in 1905, the Northeast Passage was seen as a potentially lucrative, but incredibly dangerous, shortcut for sailing around the world.
For decades now, Russian icebreakers have been using their reinforced hulls to plowing a path through the icy seas. And, starting in 1997, commercials ships began to use the Passage as well. These trips, however, have largely been during the later summer or early fall, when sea ice is at its lowest.
As the BBC reports, a natural gas tanker is presently on its way through the Northeast Passage—a first for a ship of its type and a risky maneuver given the time of year. Given this year’s record Arctic sea ice melt, though, that risk is lessened slightly: Climate change is leading to less summer ice, and the ice that does form is weaker than it traditionally would have been.
Mr Lauritzen says that a key factor in the decision to use the northern route was the recent scientific record on melting in the Arctic.
“We have studied lots of observation data – there is an observable trend that the ice conditions are becoming more and more favourable for transiting this route. You are able to reach a highly profitable market by saving 40% of the distance, that’s 40% less fuel used as well.”
The natural gas tanker, known as the Ob River, is on its way to Japan, where a curtailing of nuclear energy production following the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant saw the country turn to an increased reliance on natural gas. Philip Bump for Grist:
With the natural gas boom created by fracking, the market has shifted to the east — particularly Japan, which needs energy sources in lieu of its nuclear plants. Under traditional conditions, that would have required a route around Europe, through Mediterranean and the Suez Canal, and around the southern expanse of Asia. Now, however, it can slip above Russia and down to Japan in 20 fewer days.
The increase in Arctic shipping through the Northeast Passage joins a similar trend in the North American Arctic, where tourists have been flocking to the now largely ice-free Northwest Passage.
The Ob River has already navigated the Northeast Passage once before, traveling west heading from South Korea on a research mission. The present voyage to Japan, currently underway, will be the ship’s first run carrying a load of fuel.
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