Antarctica
Shutterstock
Smooth sailing?

For a ship on a mission of worldwide importance, the Yong Sheng is a distinctly unimpressive sight. The grey and green hull of the 19,000-tonne cargo vessel, operated by China's state-owned Cosco Group, is streaked with rust, while its cargo of steel and heavy equipment would best be described as prosaic.

Yet the Yong Sheng's journey, which began on Aug. 8 from Dalian, a port in northeastern China, to Rotterdam, is being watched with fascination by politicians and scientists. They are intrigued, not by its cargo, but by its route -- for the Yong Sheng is headed in the opposite direction from the Netherlands and sailing towards the Bering Strait that separates Russia and Alaska. Once through the strait, it will enter the Arctic Ocean, where it will attempt one of the most audacious voyages of modern seafaring: sailing through one of the Arctic's fabled passages, the Northern Sea Route.

The passage, which hugs the coast of northern Russia, and its mirror route, the Northwest Passage, which threads its way through the islands and creeks of northern Canada, have claimed the lives of thousands of sailors who tried for centuries to cross the Arctic in an attempt to link the ports of the Far East and Europe by sailing via the north pole. Thick pack ice, violent storms and plummeting temperatures thwarted these endeavors.

But global warming has transformed the Arctic in recent years, and its summer ice cover has dropped by more than 40 percent over the last few decades, raising the prospect that it may soon be possible to sail along the Arctic's sea routes with ease -- a notion that is proving irresistible to shipping lines, not to mention mining companies as well as oil and gas exploration firms. All believe the region is ripe for exploitation.

Several fairly large ships have already sailed the Northern Sea Route. However, the voyage of the Yong Sheng, backed by the Chinese government, has special significance. This is the first attempt by the world's biggest exporter to exploit the Arctic's disappearing ice to reach its biggest market -- the European Union.