September 28, 2013

How very ironic. Due to global warming, enough of the Arctic ice has melted that cargo ships can navigate the fabled Northwest Passage -- and the first vessel is carrying coal:

A coal-laden cargo ship is on track to become the first bulk carrier to traverse the Northwest Passage through Canada's Arctic waters, blazing a trail that shippers hope will become a time-saving route in global trade.

Traveling with a Canadian Coast Guard escort, the Nordic Orion underscores Ottawa's recent efforts to bolster a thin presence in its vast Arctic territory. Experts say the country already has fallen behind Russia, which is developing a series of Arctic ports and has a fleet of ice breakers keeping open its competing Northern Sea Route.

The vessel, which left Vancouver Sept. 17 carrying 15,000 metric tons of coal, is off the coast of Greenland and is expected to dock in Pori, Finland, next week after chugging through waters once choked almost year-round with thick sea ice.

In recent years, the Arctic region has drawn interest on the international stage as global warming makes access to resource development easier and opens these trade routes to more ships, even as questions remain about the Canadian sea lane's commercial viability.

"The melting in various places is alarming, but it's creating opportunities that weren't there before," said Edward Coll, the Newport, R.I.-based CEO of Bulk Partners, the holding company that owns Nordic Orion.

Last year, the amount of Arctic sea ice reached an all-time low of 3.42 million square kilometers (1.32 million square miles), though this year it rose to 5.10 million square kilometers, according to the University of Colorado Boulder's National Snow and Ice Data Center.

"We had a bit of a recovery this year, but it's not going to last," said NSIDC Director Mark Serreze.

Bulk Partners said Nordic Orion's route will shave off four days of travel time, or nearly 1,500 nautical miles, worth up to $200,000 in savings. The dry-goods shipper said despite additional expenses on this journey, being the first across the route, it went ahead due to strong Canadian government backing.

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