Global Warming Reopens the Northeast Passage

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As you're reading this, two German ships are heading for the Dutch port of Rotterdam, having set sail from South Korea in late July. Nothing remarkable about that. Except that by Sept. 16, both vessels — the Beluga Fraternity and Beluga Foresight — had passed Novaya Zemlya, the crescent-shaped island off Russia's north coast that to many marks the end of the Northeast Passage. Shunning conventional shipping routes between Asia and Europe in what appears to be the first commercial navigation via the treacherous Arctic sea-lane, Beluga, the shipping company behind the voyage, said in a statement that "we are all very proud" to have "successfully transited the legendary Northeast Passage."

Plenty have tried. For centuries, sailors have searched for a shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through the icy waters off Russia's northern coast. Otherwise known as the Northern Sea Route, the passage — from Siberia to the Bering Strait — promised a speedy sea route between Europe and Asia for anyone who could make it. But caked in ice during winter and pretty much inhospitable because of floating ice in summer, the route has remained largely off-limits. Global warming may change that. "The Northeast Passage offers unmatched chances for efficient sea traffic," Beluga CEO Niels Stolberg wrote in an e-mail to TIME, and "plenty [of] trade potential."

Sailing from Korea to the Netherlands via the Northeast Passage could shave 3,500 miles (5,500 km) and 10 days off the traditional 12,500-mile (20,000 km) route via the Suez Canal. Other routes could offer even bigger time savings. For Beluga, quicker trips and reduced fuel costs has saved the firm some $300,000 per ship. The company plans to sail even bigger ships through the passage next summer and expects to save about $600,000 on those voyages.

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