Five Chinese Ships, Led by Russian Icebreakers, Make Arctic Transit

A convoy of Chinese cargo ships, with at least two carrying turbine blades and other equipment for the wind power industry, has traveled via the Northern Sea Route from Asia to Europe across the Arctic Ocean.

Led by the nuclear-powered Russian icebreakers Taymyr and Vaigach, a convoy of four ships made the transit in August and early September and has begun arriving in European ports. A fifth Chinese cargo vessel is still making its way across the Arctic Ocean.

One ship, the Tian En, arrived in the French port of Rouen on September 5 carrying 63 pieces of equipment for the wind industry, including 21 wind turbine blades. It was the vessel’s first Arctic transit and the first cargo shipment ever transported through the Arctic between China and France. Russian officials said the most difficult part of the trip was the journey through the East Siberian Sea, where ice covered nearly 90 percent of the water.

China has set its sights on steadily increasing shipping via the Northern Sea Route, since the three-week transit time is roughly twice as fast as the traditional route through the Suez Canal. The tonnage of goods being shipped via the Northern Sea Route remains small for now, but has risen steadily from 40,000 tons in 2015 to nearly 1 million tons in 2017.

Experts warn that this increase in Arctic shipping poses major environmental risks, including the possibility of oil spills, and other hazards, as evidenced by the Russian research vessel that ran aground last month in the Canadian Arctic.