The countries of Asia are looking north, toward the Arctic. At last year’s Arctic Council ministerial meeting, held in May in Sweden, applications for permanent observer status were accepted from China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore, as well as Italy. In the run-up to this year’s meeting, all eyes will be on the observers. It is difficult to exaggerate the significance of the council’s expansion to Asia, particularly to the continent’s powerhouses -- China, Japan, and India -- which underscores the Arctic’s strategic value to the global economy.
For a long time, the Arctic received short shrift on the global agenda. Not so today. A potent combination of natural variation, greenhouse gas emissions, and other changes to the environment over the past two decades have accelerated the melting of Arctic ice. In fact, global warming is progressing twice as fast in the Arctic as anywhere else. The quality and thickness of sea ice there brings these changes into sharp relief. In the Arctic today, most of the ice is what scientists term first-year ice, which is on average 1.5 meters thick. This is in marked contrast to old ice or multi-year ice, which is usually around 4.5 meters thick. Not only is first-year ice thinner, it also contains more brine cells and air pockets, all of which makes it easier for ice-breakers to cut through. Climate change thus portends the potential opening up of a passage along the northern coast of Eurasia connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
In August 2012, Xue Long (Ice Dragon) became the first Chinese ship to cross the Arctic Ocean, making its way through the Northern Sea Route to arrive in Iceland. In December 2012, the LNG tanker Ob River, owned by Dynagas and carrying the flag of the Marshall Islands, sailed from Norway to Japan along the same route. These two voyages were among the 46 through the Northeast Passage in 2012, a considerable increase from 34 in 2011 and four in 2010. In 2013, this figure rose to more than 70. And far 2