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ARKHANGELSK, Russia — Rounding the northernmost tip of Russia in his oceangoing tugboat this summer, Capt. Vladimir V. Bozanov saw plenty of walruses, some pods of beluga whales and in the distance a few icebergs.
One thing Captain Bozanov did not encounter while towing an industrial barge 2,300 miles across the Arctic Ocean was solid ice blocking his path anywhere along the route. Ten years ago, he said, an ice-free passage, even at the peak of summer, was exceptionally rare.
But environmental scientists say there is now no doubt that global warming is shrinking the Arctic ice pack, opening new sea lanes and making the few previously navigable routes near shore accessible more months of the year. And whatever the grim environmental repercussions of greenhouse gas, companies in Russia and other countries around the Arctic Ocean are mining that dark cloud’s silver lining by finding new opportunities for commerce and trade.
Oil companies might be the most likely beneficiaries, as the receding polar ice cap opens more of the sea floor to exploration. The oil giant Exxon Mobil recently signed a sweeping deal to drill in the Russian sector of the Arctic Ocean. But shipping, mining and fishing ventures are also looking farther north than ever before.
“It is paradoxical that new opportunities are opening for our nations at the same time we understand that the threat of carbon emissions have become imminent,” Iceland’s president, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, said at a recent conference on Arctic Ocean shipping held in this Russian port city not far south of the Arctic Circle.
At the same forum, Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin of Russia offered a full-throated endorsement of the new business prospects in the thawing north.
“The Arctic is the shortcut between the largest markets of Europe and the Asia-Pacific region,” he said. “It is an excellent opportunity to optimize costs.”
This summer, one of the warmest on record in the Arctic, a tanker set a speed record by crossing the Arctic Ocean in six and a half days, carrying a cargo of natural gas condensate. The previous record was eight days.
Scientists say that over the last 10 years the average size of the polar ice sheet in September, the time of year when it is smallest, has been only about two-thirds the average during the previous two decades. The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program, a Norwegian group studying the Arctic, forecasts that within 30 or 40 years the entire Arctic Ocean will be ice-free in the summer.
And so business plans are being drawn up to capitalize on changes in a part of the world that for much of seafaring history was better known for grim final entries in diaries of explorers like Hugh Willoughby of England. He died with his crew in 1553 trying to navigate this shortcut from Europe to Asia, known as the Northeast Passage.
The Russians, by traveling near the coast, have been sailing the Northeast Passage for a century. They opened it to international shipping in 1991, after the breakup of the Soviet Union. But only recently have companies begun to find the route profitable, as the receding polar ice cap has opened paths farther offshore — allowing larger, modern ships with deeper drafts to make the trip, trimming days off the voyage and saving fuel.
In 2009, the first two international commercial cargo vessels traveled north of Russia between Europe and Asia. This year, 18 ships have made the now mostly ice-free crossing.
For the rest of this article, please go to the New York Times website: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/18/business/global/warming-revives-old-dream-of-sea-route-in-russian-arctic.html?_r=1&ref=andrewkramer