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China's national shipping and shipping services company China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) intends to provide regular Asia to Europe freight services through the Arctic. If successful, in season, this service would shave two weeks off of the traditional transit time via the Suez canal. The plan is dependent on rising temperatures making the icy route increasingly viable. That is something we have cautioned investors in such ventures from betting on. Despite U.S. government, other governments, and even Papal pronouncements that assert that global warming is an assured future trend, it has been about 18 years since the average global temperature actually rose. That rise did create something of a diminished supply of "old" (multi season) ice. But given the reality of the climatological data vice the propaganda we don't have much faith in natural help in keeping Arctic shipping routes clear for an extended season. On the other hand the Russians, with their deep commitment to High Arctic development and the worlds largest fleet of heavy duty ice breakers are doing a pretty good job of keeping their 3,400 mile route open for an extensive portion of the Arctic summer. Russia actively advertises the Northern Sea Route as an attractive alternative to the Suez route. Indeed the Russian Ministry of Transport has estimated that the route will pass over ten million tons of cargo annually sometime over the next decade. So far the route's best year has been 2013 when it passed about 1.4 billion tons of cargo in 71 ships. The ship crossings dropped to about 50 in 2014. Mother nature hasn't been living up to its media hype as a helper for the icy route but Russia has the ice breakers to at least assure something of a navigation season most any year.
COSCO seems committed to the Northern Sea route though also shows some signs of hedging its bets. COSCO has admitted that among its options it is considering buying some second hand ships for testing new routes. If adopted that measure could save some serious expenses if a new route of any sort doesn't work out. However, commitment to the Northern Sea Route is at least in the feasibility study realm right now and with previous commercial transits under their belt COSCO is positioned well to be a major Northern Route Player if Russia can keep the route open each season. One development that takes some of the cost considerations for managing the route off of COSCO is the construction of the Siberian Port Novatek. This port as well as other the Arctic cargo movements related on on scene natural resources development assure an increase in Arctic traffic regardless of how relatively open the ice leads become. Thanks to Russian interests in Arctic natural resource development Russia is highly likely to continue funding large ice breaker fleets. Regular through services by COSCO would help pay the management bill for Russia and could lead other customers to follow on, But Russia is in the Arctic to stay and expand, so at least in terms of a Russian managed Northern Route COSCO has a pretty fair bet for some sort of annual navigation season for the short cut. The transit window for the Northern Route usually opens in July and closes in November. The best transit conditions occur in September and early October. . Presently Arctic ice concentration is around half of what it was in 1979, according to the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center. ” Current Arctic ice concentration is around half of what it was in 1979, according to the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center. We simply don't have much reliable data about Arctic ice concentrations much prior to 1979 or much basis for predicting what the normal 5, 10 , or 20 year cycles are like, but everything about weather and climates cycles. To the extent that anyone should consider investment in High Arctic shipping routes it should be based on regional governmental investment in managing such routes, and not on weather / climate speculation. At the moment the only reasonably safe bet is the Russian route.