Shipping from China to Europe through the Arctic Ocean was once considered impossible. Today, it not only seems possible, one company has announced plans for a regular route.


Chinese cargo-shipping giant COSCO has announced plans to launch the first regular Asia-to-Europe sailings through the Arctic Ocean, significantly reducing the travel time incurred going through the Suez Canal. This is possible because global warming and accelerated ice melting in the Arctic now make the route viable.


Earlier this week, Chinese state-run Xinhua news agency reported that Chinese experts and officials had hailed the route as a “golden waterway” for trade. Later, a spokeswoman for COSCO said, “There is an intention to open a regular line in the future and people are discussing it,” an article in The Japan Times reports.


In the past, a thick ice pack, violent storms and plummeting temperatures in the Arctic Ocean made the route unnavigable. However, global warming has transformed the Arctic in recent years, and its summer ice cover has dropped by more than 40 percent over the last few decades.


Two years ago, the ice-strengthened Yong Sheng, a 19,000-ton cargo vessel operated by COSCO, began a trip from Dalian, a port in north-eastern China, to Rotterdam through the Arctic Ocean. The 3,380-mile journey was projected to cut two weeks off the traditional route between Asia and Europe via the Suez Canal, thereby not only saving time, but significantly reducing fuel cost as well. The ship successfully made the trip, which ended up being nine days faster and 2,800 nautical miles less than the usual route through the Indian Ocean and Suez Canal.


Earlier this month, the Yong Sheng completed a 55-day round-trip voyage between China and Europe again using the Northeast Passage, Xinhua said. The success of the trip has prompted COSCO to move forward with plans to regularly use the route.


“Enormous expenditures on fuel, canal transit, security guard, personnel and vessel wear and tear can be saved,” Xinhua said, The Japan Times article reports. “Cost-friendly routes will be extremely significant to COSCO Group in the current difficulties of (the) global maritime industry.”


The European Union is China’s largest trading partner, and sailing through the Arctic rather than the Indian Ocean dramatically reduces time. As an additional benefit, the polar route also enables ships to avoid the increasingly pirate-infested waters of the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, so the route’s appeal is certainly understandable.


There are still challenges to overcome, though. For instance, as an article in The Arctic Journal points out, when the Yong Sheng made its first trek two years ago, there was considerable international debate and speculation about an “Arctic boom.” Since that time, however, there has been a considerable drop in global energy and commodity prices, which has made many plans for Arctic development more expensive. There are environmental concerns as well, because it’s impossible to tell in advance just when shipping lanes may open because the melting season is unpredictable.


That said, the lower fuel costs and shorter travel times make the route appealing. In addition to China, other countries including Japan, Singapore and South Korea are reportedly preparing for future trans-Arctic shipping. It will be interesting to see how often COSCO uses the Arctic route, as well as if other countries do indeed follow suit.


What are your thoughts on shipping through the Arctic Ocean? Is the cost of having such ice-strengthened ships worth it?