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The Northeast Passage

The Northeast Passage - the sea route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans over the top of Norway and Russia - has for centuries fascinated intrepid seafarers in their search for a shortcut between the two oceans. Before the Suez and Panama canals, journeys from Europe to the Far East around Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope were lengthy, expensive and dangerous.

From as early as the 11th century, Russian seafarers and the Pomors - traders living on the shores of the White Sea - started to explore the northern sea routes. In the course of the 17th century, Russian and other Nordic seafarers continued to chart the Arctic waters, making lengthy excursions from the mouths of the great rivers - the Lena, the Kolyma and others - along the northern coast. It was not until 1878-79, however, that an expedition managed to sail the full length of the passage from West to East.

Throughout the 20th century, further exploration took place and in 1932, a special governing body was set up by the Soviet government to supervise navigation and expand arctic ports like Dudinka and Pevek. Yet the arctic sea remained largely out of bounds for foreign shipping and with the end of the Soviet Union, commercial shipping along the northeast passage declined except for inter-Russian cargo shipments to arctic ports.

Global warming and the receding arctic ice cap, however, has opened new opportunities for commercial traffic along a route that was previously largely ice bound, even during the summer months. Potential finds of oil and gas reserves under the seabed have also drawn attention to the region whose sovereignty, until then, had not been a point of much contention.

A regular link through the Arctic Sea could cut journey time between the North Pacific and Europe by half and make transport of relatively low value cargo like raw materials much cheaper due to the huge savings in fuel. Though there are few commercial ports along the route that could act as entrepôts for ships carrying a varied cargo, traffic along the passage has increased dramatically in the past years. In 2011, only four ships sailed the length of the route. In 2012, the number jumped to 46.

Today, the journey from Murmansk in the far north of Karelia to the port of Kholmsk on the island of Sakhalin, north of Japan, only take 21 days. In August 2018, the Venta Maersk, an ice-class vessel owned by Maersk, the largest shipping company in the world, became the first container ship to navigate the Northeast Passage laden with Russian fish and Korean electronics. Trying to encourage others to follow suit, Russia has started to upgrade road and railway links to arctic ports which are also being expanded in anticipation of an increase in traffic.

Elena Chernyshova made the epic journey from Murmansk to Kholmsk aboard the Russian icebreaker Fedor Ushakov, spending almost half of the journey in complete polar night and crossing 29 degrees of latitude and 9 time zones.
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