China to Holland via the Arctic

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The container ship Yong Sheng steamed into Rotterdam, Holland, on Tuesday to a throng of media after a voyage the shipping industry watched closely.

The 528-footer, carrying a cargo of steel and industrial machinery, became the first Chinese container ship to sail the Northern Sea Route through the Arctic, demonstrating the commercial potential for the world’s biggest exporter.

By taking the Arctic route, the ship about cut two weeks and 2,800 nautical miles off the conventional route through the Suez Canal and Mediterranean Sea.

The Suez-Mediterranean route takes about 48 days, but the Arctic route takes about 35 days and is about 8,100 nautical miles, according to a report by Britain’s The Independent newspaper. Yong Sheng completed the voyage 33 days after leaving Dalian, China, Aug. 8.

As climate change opens up previously impassable Arctic shipping lanes, many hope the Yong Sheng’s voyage presages a new era for the global shipping industry.

However, the passage is only open during a 10-week window between July and November, when summer weather thaws the ice, and a “polar transit permission” from Russian authorities is required.

Russian authorities said that 46 permits were granted last year for ships to sail through its Arctic waters, according to The Independent.

By contrast, 17,225 vessels, including 6,332 container ships, transited the Suez Canal last year.

“We do not see [the Northern Sea Route] having a major impact on routes via Suez,” Lars Mikael Jensen, head of Asia-Europe trade at Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping group, told the Financial Times.

“It’s early days,” added Gary Li, a senior maritime analyst with IHS in Beijing. “The Northern Sea Route probably needs another 20 or 30 years of climate change to make it fully viable. And even then, it’s got so many constraints.”

Even in August, he adds, ice remains a danger.

Environmentalists also are concerned about the impact of increased shipping through the Arctic, the potential for oil spills in particular.