PHOTO: Drift ice camp in the middle of the Arctic Ocean as seen from the deck of icebreaker Xue Long ("Snow Dragon")
OSLO - A Chinese shipping firm is planning the country's first commercial voyage through a shortcut across the Arctic Ocean to the United States and Europe in 2013, a leading Chinese scientist said on Tuesday.
Huigen Yang, director general of the Polar Research Institute of China, told Reuters that the trip he led last year on the icebreaker Xuelong, or Snowdragon, to explore the route had "greatly encouraged" Chinese shipping companies.
"One commercial voyage by a Chinese shipping company may take place this summer," he said.
For China, the world's No. 2 economy after the United States, the route would save time and money. The distance from Shanghai to Hamburg is 2,800 nautical miles (5,185 kms) shorter via the Arctic than via the Suez Canal, Yang said.
Despite ice risks on a route that is opening because of climate change, shipping as well as oil and gas exploration and mining businesses are being drawn to the Arctic region.
Beijing sent the Xuelong across the Arctic Ocean to Iceland last year, the first Chinese ship to use a route between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans that was used by almost 50 commercial vessels from other nations in 2012.
Yang showed delegates at a conference about the Arctic in Oslo organised by The Economist magazine longer-term scenarios under which between five and 15 percent of China's international trade, mostly container traffic, would use the route by 2020.
Ten percent of China's projected trade by 2020, for instance, would be worth $683 billion, he said. "If the route is constructively prepared ... then the demand is there, it could be a huge number," he said.
Ice on the Arctic Ocean shrank to a record low last September since satellite observations began in the 1970s. Many experts expect it will vanish in summers by mid-century due to climate change caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases.
"We see a potential there but it will not be the new Suez Canal," said Christian Bonfils, managing director of Denmark-based Nordic Bulk Carriers which sent 10 ships through the route in 2012 carrying products such as iron ore.
"You will not see a boom in the construction of ice-class vessels - the season is too short," he said of a shipping season that lasts from about July to November, referring to ships needing specially hardened hulls.
Sergei Frank, head of Russia's Sovcomflot shipping company, said that there had been a steady gain in the numbers of vessels using the route in recent years.
"We expect a small rise this year," he said.
The thaw will also make it easier to reach remote regions in the Arctic, without crossing from the Pacific to the Atlantic. That could mean more tourism on cruise ships and access to coastal communities and minerals.
By Environment Correspondent Alister Doyle (Additional reporting by Balazs Koranyi; Editing by Louise Ireland) (c) Thompson Reuters