China’s Voyage of Discovery to Cross the Less Frozen North

Global warming means that the Arctic’s fabled Northern Sea Route could soon be ice-free in summer, slashing journey times for cargo ships sailing from the Far East to Europe. Which is why the Yong Sheng, a rust-streaked Chinese vessel, is on a truly historic journey.
ezioman/Flickr

ezioman/Flickr

For a ship on a mission of worldwide importance, the Yong Sheng is a distinctly unimpressive sight. The grey and green hull of the 19,000-tonne cargo vessel, operated by China‘s state-owned Cosco Group, is streaked with rust, while its cargo of steel and heavy equipment would best be described as prosaic.

Yet the Yong Sheng’s journey, which began on 8 August from Dalian, a port in north-eastern China, to Rotterdam is being watched with fascination by politicians and scientists. They are intrigued, not by its cargo, but by its route – for the Yong Sheng is headed in the opposite direction from the Netherlands and sailing towards the Bering Strait that separates Russia and Alaska. Once through the strait, it will enter the Arctic Ocean, where it will attempt one of the most audacious voyages of modern seafaring: sailing through one of the Arctic’s fabled passages, the Northern Sea Route.

The passage, which hugs the coast of northern Russia, and its mirror route, the Northwest Passage, which threads its way through the islands and creeks of northern Canada, have claimed the lives of thousands of sailors who tried for centuries to cross the Arctic in an attempt to link the ports of the Far East and Europe by sailing via the north pole. Thick pack ice, violent storms and plummeting temperatures thwarted these endeavours.

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