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Northeast Passage’s “First Known Commercial Shipment”? Almost

Andy Revkin at DotEarth’s “Welcome to Earth’s ‘New’ Ocean: The Arctic” (about the navigation of the “Northeast Passage” by two German ships) has not yet found time to reply to my question as outlined below:

In Tom Nelson’s blog there is a link at Answer.com where several sources (including Wikipedia) repeat information about the Northeast Passage (Northern Sea Route) progressively becoming more and more easy to navigate during the last few centuries, of several expeditions going all the way decades ago, of commercial exploitation from 1877. Would Mr Revkin be so kind as to comment, and perhaps clarify what he and/or Lawson W Brigham exactly meant with “this is, indeed, a first“. – thank you in advance

Revkin’s actual words include “first known commercial shipment” and “Lawson W. Brigham, a longtime source for anything related to Arctic shipping, confirmed that this is, indeed, a first“. Yes but…a first of what? If “commercial exploitation began in 1877” then the latest “first” needs some good qualifier. Here’s what the Company managing those German ships actually claims in their website (sep 9):

We are all very proud and delighted to be the first western shipping company which has successfully transited the legendary Northeast-Passage

Trade magazine Break-bulk appears to confirm:

The two vessels will then be the first non-Russian commercial vessels to make it through the Northeast Passage from Asia to Europe

Was this all too difficult to read and understand? Would the explanation of the “non-Russian” bit have removed too much from the news for it to get any space in the newspaper?


I am not sure if I will ever get an answer from Revkin.

What I am sure of though is that a little less ambiguity and a little more explanation on his part would have been quite welcome. Otherwise readers might get the impression that either the Northeast Passage is ready for leisure yachts, or that it has been forever closed by giant chunks of ice for millennia…

  1. Greybeard
    2009/09/16 at 06:31

    Hello. I’ve read your site off and on and decided to add to this post. Although this isn’t in regards to commercial shipping via the NW Passage, it is pertinent to the discussion of the passage being open as there is a common misconception among the general public that the NW Passage is one route. From the NSIDC’s own site:

    Sea routes in the Arctic

    “The Northwest Passage is not a single passage, but rather a number of possible routes through the channels of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Satellite images show that the shallow and narrow southern route, which Amundsen navigated in 1905, appeared to open briefly this August. This route was also open in 2007 and 2008. The deeper northern route, of great interest for potential commercial transport, was open in 2007 but is still blocked by ice this year.

    On the other side of the Arctic, the Northern Sea Route is open along most of the route, except for a narrow band of ice between the islands of Severnaya Zemlya and the Siberian mainland. Ice tends to persist in this area because of winds that push ice into the constrained region. Even during the record low extent year of 2007, the area around Severnaya Zemlya remained clogged with ice.

    Evidence based on satellite data should not be taken as proof of safe conditions for shipping—hazardous areas of ice may remain.”


    To MikeW, I agree on the point about this trip coinciding with the arctic ice minimum. The information on when it occurs has been available for some time now if one knows where to look and it wouldn’t be that difficult to time a journey to coincide with it.

  2. MikeW
    2009/09/15 at 15:44

    Russia already has quite a fleet of nuclear powered icebreaker ships with more being added for the express intent to open shipping between Western Europe and the Pacific (such as the 50 Let Pobedy used for this trip). Despite news coverage, this “historic” Arctic transit had a whole lot less to do with AGW than with a focused effort to get foreign currency by operating a virtual ‘Arctic canal’. Enabling tourist cruises to the north pole looks to be lucrative as well.


    I find it interesting that this evidently none-too-speedy transit (the ships left Korea in late July) occurred just on the eve of minimum ice extent. Two nuke icebreakers to escort just two ships doesn’t seem anywhere near economical yet. If they try another time of year I’d be more impressed.

  3. PKD
    2009/09/15 at 11:02

    Hi – nice site you have!

    I must confess though ‘m not really sure I understand what the point of your post is meant to be. I mean – whats the big deal?


    • 2009/09/15 at 11:22

      PKD – the ‘big deal’ was front page on the IHT…as pointed out by
      Morano, we do need to know if things have been spiced up to make it to a front page

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