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Dr Peter Wadhams
The relics of early expeditions are everywhere along the route
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Friday, 7 April, 2000, 12:34 GMT 13:34 UK
New route breaks the ice
A time-saving new shipping route connecting Europe to the Pacific may be navigable thanks to global warming, scientists say.

The North Eastern Passage, which cuts through the arctic waters along Siberia, was until now locked by ice. However, the steady rise in temperatures over the last 20 years has seen the ice thin and retreat substantially.

This means that the passage may soon become navigable for most of the year.

Dr Peter Wadhams, of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, UK, said that the long sought dream of a North East shipping route "could become reality in as little as 10 years time".

Shorter distances

Commercial companies trading between Europe and the Far East or North Western America would see shipping times slashed. At the moment, a voyage from London to Japan via the Suez Canal covering 20,300 km (11,000 nautical miles) takes 35 days.

The distance via the North Eastern passage is only 13,000 km (7,000 nautical miles) and would take around 22 days - a substantially shorter journey.

"If you can use the northern sea route, it'll be very, very advantageous in terms of freight costs," Dr Wadhams told the BBC.

Ships can currently only reach the East through the Panama Canal, the Suez Canal, or by going around Africa or South America.

Submarine data

Dr Wadhams said that satellite images showed arctic sea ice receding towards the North Pole at a rate of 5% per decade.

American and British submarines have also been monitoring the thickness of the ice which has thinned by 40% over the last 20 years. These changes have been attributed to human-induced global warming by some scientists. Others believe much of the retreat could be explained by a natural climate phenomenon known as the Arctic Oscillation, which can result in particular wind patterns that last several years.

Whatever the cause, there are several political, legal and commercial issues to address before any lucrative route can be used. The North Eastern Passage lies entirely in Russian waters. The Russians have been using the passage internally for some time, but show signs of willingness to open it up to international traffic.

Insurance companies are also reluctant to insure vessels in arctic waters because of fears of ice damage.

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07 Mar 00 | Sci/Tech
Earth enters the big thaw
16 Nov 99 | Sci/Tech
Arctic sea ice gets thinner
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