Disappearance of Arctic ice opens up new era of shipping

ANCHORAGE — Two rare episodes last week spotlight the new world -- and its potential and perils -- that is opening up the Arctic seas as global warming slowly erodes the ice cap.

One of them was a potentially fatal illness on a cruise ship in the icy Beaufort Sea, hundreds of miles from a large surgery center, and more than a thousand nautical miles from a permanent Coast Guard station.

Luckily for the crew member who was diagnosed with possible appendicitis Thursday, the 164-passenger vessel was not far from BP's massive Prudhoe Bay oil field.

A small oil-spill response boat whisked her to Prudhoe's medical clinic, where she checked out OK. No appendicitis, according to the Coast Guard.

The crew member took a flight to Barrow. The cruise ship, the Bremen, is making its way to Nome, where it will begin a new itinerary traveling through the Bering Sea, the Aleutians and on to Russia and Japan.

The second episode reflects the industrial potential of the Arctic.

A couple of German cargo ships escorted by a Russian icebreaker steamed through the Bering Strait last weekend on a journey from Japan to Siberia, and then on to Europe. They are carrying power plant equipment needed in a Siberian city. It's the first time in more than a decade that Russia has escorted cargo ships on the trade route. Cargo ships typically travel between Asia and Europe via the Suez Canal in Egypt.

Welcome to the new age of the Arctic.

Arctic trade experts say that natural resource development and regional trade will open up marine shipping through the Arctic over the next decade and that many non-Arctic nations will be participating.

While Russia and Canada have established rules for Arctic transport, many worry that the United States is far behind. The U.S. Coast Guard readily acknowledges it is ill-equipped to conduct search and rescue operations in the ice or police Alaska's vast northern coast, for example.

Climate scientists have predicted the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free in the summer as early as 2015. That means greater marine access and longer seasons of navigation, according to the 2009 Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment, published by the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental body including the U.S., Canada, Denmark, Greenland, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden.

"As the ice retreats, the people advance," said Capt. Michael Terminel, who runs Edison Chouest Offshore's Alaska operation. His company is building Royal Dutch Shell's $150 million Arctic supply ship to support offshore exploration drilling in the Beaufort Sea.

The United States is behind Russian and Canada in studying the seafloor, establishing navigation rules and making other investments in the region, Terminel said.

"We just don't know what's there," he said. "We don't know what the ecosystem is."

Either way, some international shippers are finding the Arctic irresistible. By avoiding Suez, the ongoing Arctic voyage by the two German cargo vessels -- the Beluga Fraternity and Beluga Foresight -- will save about 3,300 nautical miles and 400 tons of fuel, and cut the trip length from 32 to 23 days, said Niels Stoleberg, president of Beluga Group, which owns the ships.

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