Melting ice means a Russian gas company can now send tankers to Japan through the Arctic Ocean, instead of the Suez Canal.
Melting ice means a Russian gas company can now send tankers to Japan through the Arctic Ocean, instead of the Suez Canal. - 
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There's been a breakthrough in the shipping industry, and a milestone in the story of global warming.  A large tanker named Ob River has just sailed eastwards from Northern Europe to Japan through the Arctic Ocean. This is the first time a ship of this type has completed the voyage.

It's bad news for the planet. It shows how far the north polar ice cap is melting.  But it also  shows how climate change is creating new commercial opportunities -- especially for the Russians.

Ob River is not the first cargo ship to make the crossing, but it is the first big tanker to do so carrying Liquefied Natural Gas -- perhaps the first of many.

Gunnar Sandar of the Norwegian Polar Institute says global warming is creating a viable new trade route through the Arctic Ocean.

"The implication for shipping, first of all, is that you've had larger areas that are more or less ice-free and you've had a longer season which is navigable," says Sandar.

The Russian energy giant Gazprom chartered the tanker to carry the natural gas to Japan. Hal Brown is with the shipping journal Lloyds List and says sailing eastwards through the Arctic makes a lot more sense than using the traditional southern route via the Suez Canal.

"It cuts sailing time between Russian ports and Asia from 40 days to about 22 days," he says. "So it saves owners a huge amount on fuel."

About a million dollars per trip. Julian Lee of the Centre for Global Energy Studies says the Ob River voyage is a vital commercial exercise by the Russians.

"Gazprom is trying to prove that this Northern Sea Route is a viable way for it to deliver gas to markets in Asia," Lee says.

There is a great deal at stake for the Russians. They had been hoping to sell billions of cubic metres of LNG to the U.S. But with America's shale gas revolution that market has vanished. Russia must sell its LNG to China and Japan instead. Global warming will help.

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