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Media 're-open' North Eastern Passage

Thermageddon fever disappears 70 year trade route

Andrew Orlowski -  The Register - 14th September 2009

One of Russia's commercial maritime trade routes for the past 70 years has been "re-opened" by a press hungry for dramatic Global Warming scare stories - but who failed to check the most basic facts.

I've traced this fascinating example of "eco-churnalism" - peddled by both BBC Radio and its website, the Daily Mail, The Independent, Reuters and many others - back to its origins, with a press release from a German shipping group. But first of all - what on Earth is the Northern Passage?

Northeast Passage or North Sea Passage, it's a trade route that in summer months links the North European and Siberian ports to Asia, around the Arctic CircleAlso called the Northeast Passage or North Sea Passage, it's a trade route that in summer months links the North European and Siberian ports to Asia, around the Arctic Circle. Orient-bound traffic heads east, then South via the Bering Straight.

Much of the Siberian North coast lies outside the Arctic Circle, and the route offered significant gains over the alternatives via Suez or the Cape. But until technological advances in the early 20th Century it was considered too hazardous for commercial operation.

Since the 1930s the route has seen major ports spring up, carrying over 200,000 tons of freight passing through each year, although this declined with the fall of the Soviet Union.

But none of this ever happened, we learned on Saturday. The Independent reported that the journey had been traversed for the very first time, proclaiming that two German ships had completed "the first commercial navigation of the fabled North-east Passage", proclaiming it "a triumph for man, a disaster for mankind". BBC Radio followed suit.

Look out polar bears: a freighter is about to hit you

Others have followed the BBC.
Climate change: too good to be true

It didn't take long to trace the origin of the story. On Wednesday, German shipping group Beluga claimed "the first non-Russian commercial vessels to make it through the Northeast Passage from Asia to Europe".

You can still read their press release, here. Journalists failed to challenge Beluga's claim that the Northeastern Passage was "formerly impenetrable", but bloggers had debunked it within seconds.

(See An Englishman's Castle here - and Richard D North's EU Referendum blog here and here.)

North unearthed a fascinating account of the past 80 years of this sea route (pdf, 17pg) by a retired mariner Jan Drent, who made the Europe to Asia Northeast Passage himself. Drent writes that the Soviet Union offered to open the route to global commerce in 1967, but with war in the Middle East closing the Suez, Russia didn't want to offend its Arab allies.

In their haste to bring us Thermageddon, journalists now simply manufacture the evidence. But wasn't the recent warming period - which started began in the mid-1970s and with temperatures peaking in the late-1990s - a contributory factor? Arctic Ice has recovered the past couple of years, but it's still down on 30 years ago.

As it happens, the thaw has helped, but isn't the primary reason, according to maritime historians.

"In the past ten years voyages between the northern coast and Japan and Canada have demonstrated how modern ice-strengthened vessels and contemporary ice forecasting have extended the navigation season."

Ignore all that, however. If the BBC is to remain trusted, we can only conclude that these are phantom ships, failing to penetrate a previously impenetrable trade route, dropping off phantom cargo at phantom port towns

Challenge Northeast-Passage mastered:
Beluga-Group Press Release - Wednesday, 9. September 2009
Beluga vessels call at port of destination in Ob delta

Beluga Group Ships in Northeast-PassageMission accomplished – world premiere voyage successful: Two multipurpose heavy lift project carriers, the MV “Beluga Fraternity” and the MV “Beluga Foresight”, have reached their destination in Siberia safely. On Monday morning CET, 7th of September 2009, within a few hours of each other the vessels which are loaded with heavy plant modules each dropped their anchors at Novyy Port / Yamburg in the delta of the river Ob. Hence, Bremen-based project and heavy lift carrier Beluga Shipping GmbH has successfully sent two merchant vessels through the formerly impenetrable Northeast-Passage from Asia to Europe for the first time. The MV “Beluga Fraternity” had cast off on the 23rd of July and sister vessel MV “Beluga Foresight” five days later from Ulsan, South Korea. They entered the so called Northern Sea Route via the inspection point at Vladivostok in order to deliver their project cargo as far into the destination area as no other merchant vessel had previously been able to. Now, the in total 44 cargo modules with single weights of 200 tons and above have been discharged offshore onto barges by the on-board crane gear and will then be transported further to Surgut.

“We are all very proud and delighted to be the first western shipping company which has successfully transited the legendary Northeast-Passage and delivered the sensitive cargo safely through this extraordinarily demanding sea area”, Niels Stolberg said, President and CEO of Beluga Shipping GmbH, after the masters Captain Aleksander Antonov and Captain Valeriy Durov had notified that they had dropped anchor at their port of destination. “To transit the Northeast-Passage so well and professionally without incidents on the premiere trip is the result of our extremely thorough and accurate preparation as well as the outstanding team work between our attentive captains, our reliable meteorologists and our engaged crew”, said Stolberg.

During the passed days which led through the East Siberian Sea, the Sannikov Strait and the Vilkizki Strait as northernmost part the Beluga vessels were part of a little convoy behind the Russian Atomflot-ice breakers “50 let Pobedy” and “Rossia”. Small ice bergs, ice fields and ice blocks were traversed without incident. After the successful premiere, Beluga Shipping announced further project journeys through the Northeast-Passage for 2010 – then probably with the new Super Heavy Lift vessels of the Beluga P-class already, which will be launched as from autumn this year onwards.


Northern Sea Route - Wikipedia

in 1878 that Finland-Swedish explorer Nordenskid made the first successful attempt to completely navigate the Northeast Passage from west to east during the Vega expedition. The ship's captain on this expedition was lieutenant Louis Palander of the Swedish Royal Navy. In 1915 a Russian expedition led by Boris Vilkitsky made the passage from east to west.

One year before Nordenskid's voyage, commercial exploitation of the route started with the so-called Kara expeditions, exporting Siberian agricultural produce via the Kara Sea. Of 122 convoys between 1877 and 1919 only 75 succeeded, transporting as little as 55 tons of cargo. From 1911 steamboats ran from Vladivostok to Kolyma (the Kolyma steamboats) once a year.
Nordenskid, Nansen, Amundsen, DeLong, Makarov and others ran expeditions mainly for scientific and cartographic reasons.

After the Russian Revolution Introduction of radio, steamboats and icebreakers made running the Northern Sea Route viable. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Soviet Union was isolated from the western powers, which made it imperative to use this route. Besides being the shortest seaway between the West and the Far East of the USSR it was the only one which lay inside Soviet internal waters and did not impinge upon that which belonged to nearby opposing countries.

In 1932 a Soviet expedition led by Professor Otto Yulievich Schmidt was the first to sail all the way from Arkhangelsk to the Bering Strait in the same summer without wintering en route. After a couple more trial runs in 1933 and 1934, the Northern Sea Route was officially open and commercial exploitation began in 1935. Next year, part of the Baltic Fleet made the passage to the Pacific where an armed conflict with Japan was looming.

A special governing body Glavsevmorput', the Administration of the Northern Sea Route, was set up in 1932 and Otto Schmidt became its first director. It supervised navigation and built Arctic ports.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union commercial navigation in the Siberian Arctic went into decline in the 1990s. More or less regular shipping is to be found only from Murmansk to Dudinka in the west and between Vladivostok and Pevek in the east. Ports between Dudinka and Pevek see next to no shipping at all. Logashkino and Nordvik were abandoned and are now ghost towns.

So in fact it was regularly being used until the USSR broke up and chaos reigned, and now it is back working again...

Front page of The Independent today proclaims: "A triumph for man, a disaster for mankind", heralding the completion of what it claims to be "the first commercial navigation of the fabled North-east Passage."

"It is an epic moment," says the paper, "but also a vivid sign of climate change in the Arctic." The picture caption reinforces the point, telling us: "No commercial vessel has ever successfully travelled the North-east Passage, a fabled Arctic Sea route that links the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific far more directly than the usual southerly cargo route."

And none of this is true. It could not be further from the truth – it is a complete and utter distortion, a fabrication, a lie. An Englishman's Castle sussed it, by the simple expedient of looking up Wikipedia

But there is much, much more to it than that. Writes Independent hack Tony Paterson, in Berlin, "It has been one of the elusive goals of seafaring nations almost since the beginnings of waterborne trade, but for nearly 500 years the idea has been dismissed as an impossible dream. Now, as a result of global warming, the dream is about to come true."

For the truth (Wikipedia apart), let us see what the Russians say about this "impossible dream". More correctly known as the Northern Sea Route (NSR), they tell us that the NSR is Russia's main national transport line in the Arctic.

It has been commercially exploited since 1935 when four cargo motor ships passed through the route during a single navigation season. In 1936, warships of the Baltic Fleet successfully arrived in the Far East. Russia, we are told, has invested enormous material and human resources in exploring and equipping this route. Powerful icebreakers and icebreaking cargo ships have been constructed, navigational and hydrometeorological systems established. And furthermore, up until the end of the 80s, the Arctic transportation system was self-supporting. The volume of sea traffic reached 7 million tons in 1987.

The record tells us that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union - for reasons entirely related to ice conditions and entirely to do with the breakdown of the route infrastructure - shipping along the route diminished but, we learn, between 1993 - 1997 the volume of sea cargo along the NSR was still 150 - 200 thousand tons a year. A new post-Soviet peak was established in 1993 when 15 Russian ships with 210 thousand tons of transit goods passed along the route. Now, there are even tourist trips.

Also, eight ships carrying metals, fertilizers and timber travelled from ports in Russia, Latvia, Sweden and Finland to China, Japan, and Thailand. Seven ships from China carried oilcake, bauxite, magnetite and other operating supplies to Holland, England, Ireland, Germany, and Spain.

So, how did the newspaper and its fellow travellers, such as the BBC, get it so wrong?

For the genesis of error, we need to look to the hype at the start of this "epic moment", which involved two German-owned vessels, Beluga Fraternity and Beluga Foresight (pictured). Amongst the first conveying the misinformation was this, at the end of July, telling us that the the transit of these ships would be "the first time a vessel has crossed from Asia to Europe through the Arctic on a commercial passage."

In August, though, Reuters was more circumspect, although it did lay the beginnings of the false trail, announcing: "Climate change opens Arctic route for German ships."

"The melting of Arctic ice as a result of climate change has made it possible to send Beluga's multi-purpose heavy lift ships along the legendary Northeast Passage," we were informed, the agency citing as its source the chief executive of the Beluga Group, Niels Stolberg.

Now, Stolberg is something of a devotee of the climate change religion, not least because he is at the forefront of fuel-saving developments, pioneered in the name of saving the planet. One of those is the "Sky Sail" – an enormous "kite-like sail" that was recently fitted to one of Stolberg's ships, funded, one discovers by the EU as part of its "Life" programme on climate change, to the tune of €1.2 million.

Enthusiast for the new religion he might be, even Stolberg back in August did not make the bold claims that are being made now. He told Reuters that this was the first "non-Russian commercial vessel" cleared by the Russians through the route. That much was possibly true, but – as we know – there had over the years been substantial Russian commercial traffic. Thus did Reuters talk about German ships. In other words, this was a "first", but only for German, as opposed to Russian ships.

By today, however, this has morphed into the Independent legend, that, "No commercial vessel has ever successfully travelled the North-east Passage ... Explorers throughout history have tried, and failed; some have died in the attempt," it warbles.

In support of this fantasy, both the Independent and the BBC cite the 1553 expedition by Sir Hugh Willoughby, who died attempting to find the route. But neither of them tells us that the route was successfully navigated in 1879 by Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld who took his ship, the SS Vega, all the way through the passage from Europe to the Bering Strait.

As to the current ice conditions which allowed the Beluga ships transit, the National Snow and Ice Data Center gives the overview: It tells us:

    Sea ice extent averaged over the month of August 2009 was 6.26 million square kilometers (2.42 million square miles). This is 900,000 square kilometers (350,000 square miles) above the record low for the month, which occurred in August 2007, 200,000 square kilometers (77,000 square miles) above August 2008, and just below the August 2005 value of 6.30 million square kilometers (2.43 million square miles). Arctic sea ice extent for August 2009 was 1.41 million square kilometers (540,000 square miles) below the 1979 to 2000 average.

And conditions, it seems, were marginal. The two Beluga vessels had to be accompanied by at least one Russian nuclear ice-breaker during the whole of the trip. The two ships "encountered snow, fog, ice floes, and treacherous icebergs which showed only about one meter of their huge underwater volume on the sea's surface." Passing the northernmost point, the Vilkizi Strait on the tip of Siberia, half of the sea's surface was covered with pack ice and the captains of both vessels had to call Russian ice pilots on board to shepherd them through.

Nevertheless, the story is just what the warmists wanted. Says Melanie Duchin, Arctic Expedition leader on board the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise, "This is further proof that climate change is happening now." Predictably, she then adds that the development put greater pressure on world leaders to agree a major emissions cut at their Copenhagen meeting in December. "This is not a cause for celebration but cause for immediate action," she declared.

Interestingly, the BBC is now downplaying the hype, referring only to "German ships", and admitting that the route has been "passable without ice breakers in 2005", neglecting to tell us that this journey required substantial assistance from ice breakers. So much for global warming.

Not from The Independent though are we allowed to know the truth. Its editorial proclaims that, "One hundred years ago, the news of a ship successfully traversing the treacherous North-east Passage would have prompted popular celebrations and wild enthusiasm." Yet, despite the feat of the Vega in 1879, this is now "a confirmation of just how rapidly and dangerously our climate is changing."

There are lies, damn lies, and then there is The Independent.


See also:
Global warming debate 'irrational': scientists
Arctic Arms Race
Northwest Passage lures British explorers
The Economic and Security Implications of Global Warming
Canada's tories plan icebreakers
The North Pole: not yet green

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