Shippers in Bremen are getting impatient. The Beluga Group, a shipping company based in the northern German city, had planned to send a ship through the Northeast Passage -- or the Northern Sea Route, as Russians call it -- this summer, according to spokeswoman Verena Beckhausen. The route leads from the Russian island Novaya Zemlya, off the northern coast of Siberia, through the Bering Strait between far eastern Russia and Alaska.
This route is radically shorter than the normal trip through the Suez Canal. From Hamburg to the Japanese port city of Yokohama, for example, the trip using the northern route is just 7,400 nautical miles -- just 40 percent of the 11,500 nautical mile haul through the Suez. Dangerous ice floes normally block the shorter route, but as of a few days ago the Northeast Passage is ice-free according to Christian Melsheimer of the University of Bremen. Scientists at the university use data from the NASA satellite "Aqua" to cobble together up-to-date maps of sea ice.
Still, it will likely be a while until the first ships sail through the passage. Russian authorities have still not issued the necessary permits allowing shipping companies like Beluga to take advantage of the Arctic shortcut this year. Nevertheless, Beckhusen emphasizes that the Northeast Passage is of strategic importance to her company.
At it likely is for a number of logistics firms. The ever-thawing Arctic represents a potentially major opportunity for the shipping industry. Currently, there are only between 20 and 30 days a year in which the Northeast Passage is 50 percent covered by ice or less, according to current statistics. But the Arctic Climate Assessment from the year 2005 estimates that such days will become increasingly frequent -- with up to 120 largely ice-free days by the end of the century. And that is likely a conservative estimate.
As the ice disappears, the previously impossible becomes potentially profitable. Shipping companies are even looking beyond the Northeast Passage to its counterpart along the north coast of the North American continent -- the Northwest Passage.
As of a few days ago, this route is also ice free, Mark Serreze of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "The route that Roald Amundsen navigated in 1903 has been open for the last few days."
Commercial ships, however, would hardly follow the famous explorer's lead. The channels along the route he took are too shallow and the waterways are hardly direct. But the more navigable Parry Channel -- a waterway leading through an Arctic archipelago claimed by Canada -- has been ice free for two years.
Indeed, Canada this week is laying claim to an additional half million square kilometers of Arctic waters so as to better be able to monitor the ships that make use of the largely ice free waters.
The only ice remaining is in an area in the McClure Strait right at the end of the passage, says Serreze. In a few days, he says, this spot will also be free of ice. Polarstern, a research ship belonging to the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, based in Bremerhaven, recently completed a trip through the Northwest Passage from east to west as part of a 68 day long circumnavigation of the North Pole. The ship will soon be in the Northeast Passage.
Scientists consider this a historic moment. "It is the first time, as far as I know, that both passages are navigable," said Serreze.
The Arctic ice cap is generally at its largest in March, says Christian Haas, an expert with the University of Alberta. Thereafter, the edges begin melting and the ice sheet begins shrinking. The summers of 2005 and 2007 were particularly devastating for the Arctic ice cap. This year, though, things haven't improved much.
An Iceless Summertime Artic Is 'Inevitable'
Many, in fact, have begun talking about an Arctic Ocean completely free of ice. The way things look now, such a scenario is not in the immediate future, but a sad, new record may indeed by set this year: The tiniest quantity of Arctic ice since scientists first started taking measurements. The Arctic melting season has another three weeks to go before the flat angle of the sun's rays mark the onset of winter.
Researchers say this summer's Artic melt looks strikingly similar to that of last summer, when the current record for smallest ice cover was set. "Perhaps 2008 will still beat 2007 in the last few days," said Rüdiger Gerdes of the Alfred Wegener Institute.
Opinions differ as to whether Arctic ice will ever recover from its dramatic shrinkage. Christian Haas is inclined to moderation. "There is still obviously a chance for recovery," he said, pointing out that last winter was colder than usual. A part of the young ice which froze last winter was even able to survive the summer melting season. But the ice will certainly not soon recover to its 30-year average. "There is too much heat in the water and the atmosphere for that," he said.
Mark Serreze is still more pessimistic. "An Arctic Ocean that is ice-free in summer is inevitable," he said. Any recovery made by the ice sheet, he said, wouldn't last "more than a couple of years in the best case scenario." By the summer of 2030, he says, the Arctic will be completely ice free for a few weeks at a time.
And the northern shipping routes will be open.