Much is being made of the voyage of the Yong Sheng, a Chinese cargo ship slowly making its way across the top of Russia and Europe toward its eventual destination, the Dutch port of Rotterdam. If the ship successfully reaches port, it will become the first commercial Chinese ship to transit the Northern Sea Route, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by way of the Bering Strait and Russia's northern coast.
But the Yong Sheng may just be riding a wave of hype.
While the journey is certainly a first in a very distinct way, it's also just another vessel using the route, which has seen an immense increase in traffic in recent years. The Wall Street Journal said in mid-August that 393 ships had been issued permits to travel the Nothern Sea Route (NSR) this year. That number swelled to more than 450 just a couple of weeks later, in tandem with the annual summertime retreat of Arctic ice.
Some are using it as an indicator of things to come, pointing to the Yong Sheng voyage as an example of ways in which an increasingly "ice-free" Arctic might be exploited.
Dr. Lawson Brigham, an Arctic shipping and policy expert and distinguished professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, warned that the trip of the Yong Sheng is not particularly unique, despite the PR blitz that seems to be surrounding the vessel's voyage.
Brigham points out that the Yong Sheng is a multi-purpose heavy lift ship, and not a true "container ship" in the sense that most think of when it comes to maritime commercial transit. And as for general commercial transit in the Northern Sea Route, he notes that in 2012, a vessel carrying a shipment of liquid natural gas (LNG) made the trip from Hammerfest, Norway, to Japan, traveling west to east along the NSR. Even earlier, in 2009, three German vessels made the east-west journey through the NSR without icebreaker assistance.
There are still some implications for the Yong Sheng's voyage across the NSR, particularly for Alaska, though. Among the issues raised by the Yong Sheng:
The forgotten Northwest Passage
In using the NSR, the Yong Sheng shaves nearly two weeks and 2,400 nautical miles off the traditional China-Europe route through the Suez Canal in Egypt. With such a direct route, there is little incentive for Asian markets -- or even those on the U.S. West Coast -- to use the Northwest Passage, the other primary Arctic waterway connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific. The Northwest passage runs over the top of Alaska and Canada and through the tricky waters of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.
"What it's used for right at the moment is there's been a ramp up in adventurers, cruise ships, yachts and things like that," Lawson said of the Northwest Passage. The ice is "more difficult" in the route, he said, and the infrastructure in the Canadian and Alaskan northern coasts is significantly less than that over Russia and into the Scandinavian countries.
But pleasure cruises and thrillseekers are not exactly major economic drivers, which means that Russia -- which has positioned itself as the world leader in icebreaker technology and Arctic vessel escort -- will be more likely than the U.S. and Canada to capitalize on the transit of goods through the Arctic Ocean. The Yong Sheng is just an exclamation point on that already-existing fact.
The Bering Strait as choke point
If Alaska and the U.S. hope to cash in on the increase in Arctic shipping through the NSR, perhaps the best way to do it is via construction of a deepwater port along the Bering Strait. It's an idea that's long been bandied about, though it's received a boost in the last year with an Army Corps of Engineers study that examined the feasibility of various Alaska communities to host a deep-draft port for Arctic access, and the White House's "National Strategy for the Arctic Region," an outline of U.S. interests in the region.
A deepwater port could benefit the U.S. in a number of ways -- the National Strategy document acknowledges that improved infrastructure in or near the Arctic could advance U.S. security interests and bolster commercial endeavors in the area.
The Army Corps of Engineers determined that Port Clarence, along with the nearby Northwest Alaska community of Nome were the best candidates for such a port. The problem with building a port intended for commercial purposes and not just as a staging area for Coast Guard or U.S. Military assets, though, is a possible lack of demand, Brigham said.
He said that Alaska might be better served by first developing goods that would need transporting through the Bering Strait, stockpiling them for the shipping season, then moving them during the ice-free window late in the summer months.
"What do we have in Alaska? is the question that needs to be asked, I guess," Brigham said, "and the answer is … a lot of natural resources. The problem is, we also don't have the infrastructure or the ports for the carriage of resources."
Transportation of natural resources is a far likelier example of how the Northern Sea route might be utilized, rather than primarily as a route for large container ships, Brigham said.
And maybe, when it comes to the Northern Sea Route, perhaps Alaska should even adopt an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" tactic in using the route to deliver the state's own resources to market. Goods and resources like Alaska seafood, or zinc and lead from the Red Dog Mine in Northwest Alaska near Kotzebue, may one day find their way to to previously infeasible markets in Europe via the Northern Sea Route, like some modern-day spice road.
Though the Bering Strait and NSR are certainly becoming more popular for vessels traversing the world's waterways, the number of vessels utilizing the route still pales in comparison to the more-popular Suez Canal, which regularly sees more than 10,000 ships pass through each year.
"We're not a competitor to the Suez Canal," Brigham said of the Arctic. "We're a seasonal supplement."
The myth of the ice-free Arctic
Despite a steady stream of gloomy news about the continued decline of sea ice in the Arctic,the NSR's role as a "seasonal supplement" is one that's likely to continue for a long time.
Though sea ice fell to all-time record low levels in 2012, with ice melting away from the world's northerly coastlines and allowing a slightly-longer shipping window for vessels hoping to utilize the NSR or Northwest Passage, the fact remains that the Arctic is largely icebound for about nine months out of each year.
The melting season typically starts in April and continues until September. Some models predict that the Arctic could be completely ice-free by about mid-century -- but that's only for the month of September, when ice levels reach their annual lows before re-freezing begins.
But that main ice pack is just one measure of ice in the Arctic.
"When you look at ice extent, there's two different ways of looking at it," said Kathleen Cole, forecaster at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's sea ice desk in Anchorage. "One is that you talk about the main pack ice, and that's what they use for climatology, climate change scenarios and that sort of thing."
The other, she said, is what's known as the Marginal Ice Zone, or MIZ. That's what the ice desk deals with: the more sporadic ice, separate from the main ice pack, that presents more of a difficulty for vessels operating in the zone between that large block of pack ice and northern shorelines.
So even though computer models and animations often represent the rapidly-declining ice-pack -- like this one from NASA released in late August -- there is still a lot of ice in those intermediate areas. Earlier this year, subsistence hunters from St. Lawrence Island in the middle of the Bering Strait were thwarted in their annual walrus hunt by thick ice and rough winds.
And for vessels hoping to utilize the Northern Sea Route, they face some of the most continuously stubborn ice, even in years when ice decline has been lower than historical averages. The National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo. has noted that the Chukchi Sea, off Alaska's northwest coast, and the East Siberian Sea over Russia have both seen ice linger this year.
Not to mention the Bering Sea and Bering Strait.
"We've had extreme ice in the Bering Sea," Cole said. "We've have more ice in the past two to three years than in some cases they thought possible, and more than the elders have ever seen."
Cole said that even ships traveling this late in the melting season are more than likely encountering some ice on the Northern Sea Route.
Even the "new normals" of less ice in the Arctic during the summer months won't banish bergs from the waters at the world's northerly latitudes.
So when the Yong Sheng pulls into port in Rotterdam, there will be much ballyhoo about its arrival, and surely talk of a new era in Arctic shipping. But as with many things in the world of Arctic policy, there are colder, harder truths underlying all the hype.
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com