2010 will be remembered as the year the Arctic Ocean became a trade route

In the 1980s, the Soviet Union built nuclear-powered ice-breakers, hoping to open a shipping route through the Arctic. They needn't have bothered — there's no ice left now in the summer, opening the fabled Northeast Passage to shipping.

According to a new report in Barents Observer, the Northeast Passage, now renamed the Northern Sea Route, will become the new shipping route between Europe and Asia, now that it's proved to be ice-free. The journey through the Arctic Ocean was a hazardous one when Finnish-Swedish explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskioeld made the 15-month journey in 1878-1879. But this summer, Norwegian explorer Børge Ousland sailed the exact same route in his little trimaran. It took a few weeks instead of 15 months, and he hardly saw any ice. In fact, he hardly saw any living things at all. He told a Norwegian broadcaster:

The most surprising with this trip is that we have hardly seen any animals at all. We have only seen animals, seals, walrus and polar bear where there has been ice.

The photos above and below come from 2007, and they show the icebergs in the region melting. But that ice is completely gone in the summertime.

2010 will be remembered as the year the Arctic Ocean became a trade route

According to the upbeat report in the Barents Observer, 2009 was the first year that shipping companies discovered the region was ice-free, and 2010 was the "breakthrough year." And 2011 will be the year that shipping in the region takes off completely. Says the Observer article:

The Russian and international shipping industry see the ongoing climate changes and the retreating of the summer ice-cap in the Arctic as a new opportunity. The distance from Europe to Asia is much shorter when sailing north instead of using the Suez channel or sail around Africa. Shorter sailing route save time and save fuel. In other words; save money. Also, the Arctic is free of pirates... When the future history of the Arctic will be written, 2010 will be marked off as the breakthrough year for commercial shipping along the Northern Sea Route.

Everybody wins!

Photos by John McConnico/Associated Press. [Barents Observer]