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MURMANSK, RUSSIA—An Arctic winter storm is a vision of terror for seamen: hurricane force winds battering heaving decks encased in thick ice, an ordeal that can drag on for days cloaked in darkness.
So far north, rescue teams are usually a very distant hope. The sinking of a Russian oil rig Sunday in a howling gale off the coast of Sakhalin, on Russia’s Far East coast, left 53 crew members confirmed dead or lost at sea, and added a new chapter to the harrowing lore of Arctic navigation.
Yet as the Arctic climate warms, and vast polar ice sheets melt, international shipping companies are eagerly eyeing two routes across the top of the world — one along Russia’s northern coast, the other through waters claimed by Canada.
Russia has a decades-long lead in controlling its Arctic coast. If Canada doesn’t catch up in claiming territory, the country may not have the power to decide who navigates the Northwest Passage through a sweeping archipelago of more than 19,000 Canadian islands.
Losing control over access to the waterway could cost Canada any chance of profiting from escort fees and other tolls if climate change permanently opens the meandering route through often tight channels.
Northerners say Arctic storms, which can blow for weeks, have been getting stronger and more frequent in recent years, and climate experts warn that is likely to become a long-term trend if average temperatures continue to climb.
That jacks up the stakes in the competition to draw international shipping into the Arctic and away from the old warm water shortcuts between Europe and Asia — the Panama and Suez canals.
By far, the most developed Arctic passage is Russia’s Northern Sea Route, which cuts almost a third off the journey between East Asia and Europe through the Suez Canal, a transit that has marked the global economy’s pulse for decades.
The Suez is a growing headache for shippers, with near constant risks of political trouble and unrest, pirates and other hazards that add steep insurance costs to the long list of fees that Egypt and various agents charge.
More than 17,000 vessels paid Egypt’s government a total of $4.7 billion last year for the privilege of avoiding the longer haul around the southern tip of Africa.
Russia is eagerly rebuilding its Northern Sea Route to take as much as it can of that action.
Ships carried a record 757,400 tonnes of freight through the route this year, mostly natural gas, iron ore and fish products, according to Russia’s transport ministry.
Foreign vessels accounted for 88.7 per cent of that total through the passage, which was open more than 141 days, longer than last year by a whole month and setting a record for an Arctic shipping season.
Russia’s great ambitions for its Arctic sea lane include a federal agency to collect the transit fees, said Anton Vasiliev, Russia’s ambassador at large for Arctic issues.
By the end of the decade, Russia expects up to 59 million tonnes of cargo to pass through the route, with another 30 per cent surge by 2030, Vasiliev said.
Increasingly, that cargo will include crude oil carried in supertankers, which environmental activists fear will be too vulnerable to breaking up in the Arctic’s crushing ice and storms.
Murmansk, the largest city anywhere in the Arctic, celebrates its 100th anniversary next year and the Kremlin is planning to make it the hub of a re-energized transportation network.
Murmansk alone expects to receive $10 billion in public and private investment by 2019 for improvements to railways, a renovated airport, new port facilities for cargo and tourist cruise ships, oil and natural gas facilities, and other projects.
For the rest of this article, please go to the Toronto Star website: http://www.thestar.com/news/world/article/1105612–canada-well-behind-russia-in-race-to-claim-arctic-seaways-and-territory?bn=1