Arctic study shows key marine food web species at risk from increasing CO2

A research expedition to the Arctic, as part of the Catlin Arctic Survey, has revealed that tiny crustaceans, known as copepods, that live just beneath the ocean surface are likely to battle for survival if ocean acidity continues to rise. The study found that copepods that move large distances, migrating vertically across a wide range of pH conditions, have a better chance of surviving.

The increasing level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is changing ocean chemistry leading to seawater moving down the pH scale towards acidity. Some areas of the Arctic Ocean are already experiencing the fastest rates of acidification on the planet and, combined with sea-ice loss and warming temperatures, the impacts of climate change are likely to hit Arctic marine life first.

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and was carried out by the University of Exeter and the Plymouth Marine Laboratory.

The scientists observed that the natural range of temperature and acidity under the ice that copepods experience on a day-to-day basis corresponded to their responses to the ocean acidification conditions predicted for 100 years’ time.

Dr Ceri Lewis from the University of Exeter said: “Our study found that some marine animals may not be able to survive the impact of ocean acidification, particularly the early-life stages. This unique insight into how marine life will respond to future changes in the oceans has implications that reach far beyond the Arctic regions.”

Found across the globe, copepods are one of the most abundant marine animals and are a vital food source for a wide variety of other marine life. Copepods can also act as bio-indicators, providing an early warning system for the health of the environment.

Until recently, it has been difficult to document what copepods and other marine life do when the Arctic Ocean is covered by sea ice, and more specifically what conditions they experience.

The researchers, working alongside polar explorers as part of the Catlin Arctic Survey, camped in winter conditions on the Arctic ice at temperatures of -40 C, risking frost bitten fingers, in order to collect this novel data.

Dr Helen Findlay from Plymouth Marine Laboratory said: “Our work has shown that life experience matters when it comes to surviving stressors. More studies are needed that link the natural environmental conditions to laboratory experiments. Ceri and I are planning to continue this line of work through a PhD studentship next year.”

An estimated 30% of carbon dioxide released by humans into the atmosphere dissolves into oceans. With carbon emissions set to increase, the world’s oceans are likely to suffer from increased acidification in the coming years. This study reveals how these changes are likely to impact globally important species like copepods.

The study demonstrates that organisms with a limited natural habitat range are likely to suffer the most under changing climatic and oceanic conditions. Organisms with a wide natural range are likely to cope better.

Future studies will consider whether the type of habitat can be used to predict the vulnerability of different species to climate change.

The research by Dr Ceri Lewis and Dr Helen Findlay is part of a broad scientific research programme undertaken by the Catlin Arctic Survey between 2009 and 2011.

The Catlin Arctic Survey, through its establishment of a seasonal Ice Base in the High Arctic, has enabled research to be conducted which significantly furthers our understanding of climate change in the region. It was part of a continuing programme of support for research into ocean changes by Catlin Group Limited, the international specialty insurer and reinsurer.

Arctic study sheds light on tree-ring divergence problem

Changes in tree-ring density in the Arctic may be evidence of changes in light intensity during the trees’ growth, according to a new study by San Francisco State University researcher Alexander Stine.

The finding has direct implications for the tree-ring “divergence problem,” a phenomenon that has received considerable media attention but has been widely misinterpreted, said Stine, an assistant professor of Earth and climate sciences.

Tree rings consist of a low density ring, which forms early in the growing season, and a high density ring that forms late in the growing season. In colder parts of the world, the dense latewood rings tend to be denser during warm years. Temperature records inferred from Arctic tree rings do a good job of tracking temperature up until the 1960s, but subsequent Arctic tree-ring densities did not keep pace with increases in temperature, a discrepancy that is called the divergence problem.

Climate scientists have been aware of the divergence problem for some time, and it was mentioned in the emails from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, where it became the focus of attention during the 2009 “Climategate” controversy.

The divergence is not a problem for understanding modern climate change in the Arctic, Stine explained, “because we have thermometers and those thermometers tell us it’s warming. But it’s a problem because if we want to use these tree rings as a proxy for temperatures of the past, we need to make sure that we understand what’s happening now.”

Stine sees the new findings as the “bright side” of the divergence problem, one which he hopes will lead to a more informed discussion about climate change. “We could learn more about past variations in light intensity at the Earth’s surface, and we may be able to deepen our understanding of both trees and climate.”

With his colleague Peter Huybers at Harvard University, Stine set out to understand why tree-ring density was declining in the Arctic. One possible explanation, the two thought, might be changes in light intensity that affected the trees’ ability to grow.

Starting in the 1960s, the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface has declined. Scientists debate the cause of this “global dimming,” with many scientists attributing it to pollution particles injected into the atmosphere by human activity that deflect incoming sunlight.

The researchers tested whether global dimming might be responsible for the decline in tree-ring density in the Arctic. This idea had been proposed in the past, but scientists had not been able to test the hypothesis.

“It’s very hard to distinguish a record that’s controlled by temperature from one that’s controlled by light, because light and temperature tend to vary together. Sunnier days are usually warmer,” Stine added.

To get around this challenge, the researchers took advantage of the fact that there are regional variations in cloud cover and light availability throughout the Arctic, allowing them to compare trees that grew in the brightest and darkest areas but in comparable temperature ranges. They found that divergence was largest in the darkest parts of the Arctic, where changes in light should have the largest effect.

The researchers used changes in tree-ring density following volcanic eruptions to confirm the findings. Major volcanic events such as the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines also have spewed tons of light-scattering sulfur dioxide particles into the atmosphere, decreasing the amount of sunlight reaching the surface.

Their analysis for seven different tree species suggests variations in light intensity caused by volcanic eruptions and global dimming both affect tree-ring density, and this impact is greatest in the darkest Arctic regions. In the brightest areas, the divergence problem essentially disappears, and tree-ring density is most closely linked to temperature instead.

Stine said the findings could have implications for geoengineering proposals that would pump more aerosol particles into the atmosphere as a way to block sunlight and potentially cool a warming planet. The tree-ring study suggests that Arctic trees might not grow as much — and thus not soak up as much atmosphere-polluting carbon — under such a plan.

Arctic storms that churn seas and melt ice more common than thought

Arctic storms swirling around the top of the world are more common than previously thought with about 1,900 in the first decade of the century, researchers say.

As they churn across the top of the globe each year they leave warm water and air in their wakes, melting sea ice in the Arctic Ocean, scientists at Ohio State University reported Wednesday.

An analysis of arctic storms from 2000 to 2010 found 40 percent more of the cyclones that had previously been estimated, they said.

“We now know there were more cyclones than previously thought, simply because we’ve gotten better at detecting them,” geography Professor David Bromwich said.

Many of the cyclones previously missed were small in size and short in duration, or occurred in unpopulated areas, he said.

The study area was north of 55 degrees latitude, which includes the northern reaches of Canada, Scandinavia and Russia, along with the state of Alaska.

“We can’t yet tell if the number of cyclones is increasing or decreasing, because that would take a multidecade view,” Bromwich said. “We do know that, since 2000, there have been a lot of rapid changes in the arctic — Greenland ice melting, tundra thawing — so we can say that we’re capturing a good view of what’s happening in the Arctic during the current time of rapid changes.”

As an example, he cited an especially large cyclone that hit the arctic in August 2012, which scientists say they believe played a significant role in the record retreat of sea ice that year.

Arctic states gather to try to save polar bear from global warming

Towering at the top of the food chain, the polar bear need not worry about predators but nonetheless faces a daunting enemy: climate change, which is jeopardising the very survival of the species.

To avoid relegating the majestic animal to the realm of museums, the five countries that ring the Arctic — Canada, Denmark (with Greenland), Norway, Russia and the United States — are set to meet in the northern Norwegian town of Tromsoe on March 17 to discuss how to safeguard the bear.

“No sea ice equates no polar bears. It’s really that simple,” Geoff York, a polar bear expert with environmental group WWF, told reporters in Oslo days before the meeting.

That is an alarming statement considering the speed at which the Arctic sea ice is currently disappearing, with some estimates showing it could melt completely during the summer months by 2020 or even earlier.

With the mercury rising ever higher, as many as two thirds of the 20-25,000 polar bears that roam the Arctic could disappear by the middle of this century according to a recent estimate from the US Geological Survey.

The white bears today depend on the Arctic sea ice as their main hunting ground, stalking seals to stock up on enough fat to get them through the winter.

Groggy from on-land hibernation, more and more bears today are caught off guard by their rapidly melting sea ice, forcing them to choose between dragging along their cubs on impossibly long swims or remain stranded facing an almost certain death by starvation.

And the perils do not end once the bears have made it through the summer. In the autumn, the pregnant females are forced to use precious energy to swim across ever expanding distances to reach land.

The average polar bear today weighs about 15 percent less than was the case 20 years ago, Canadian experts say.

The three-day Tromsoe meeting will discuss how to address threats against the polar bear that have emerged since they first signed a conservation agreement in 1973, back when hunters were their only known enemy.

Close to four decades after the signing of the agreement however, WWF says climate change is now “the predominant threat” facing the white bear and insists the Arctic countries have a special obligation to spearhead efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

Several of the Arctic nations are “extremely important (to the development of) international climate change policies,” said Rasmus Hansson, the head of WWF Norway, rejoicing that in the United States, President Barack Obama “has sent completely different signals than the previous administration on climate issues.”

The polar bear, whose fate will depend heavily on the outcome of the Copenhagen talks in December on a new global climate change pact set to replace the Kyoto accord, also faces other threats.

While the hunting of polar bears has been reined in in recent decades it has not completely disappeared.

Indigenous people in the region receive limited hunting permits, but the bear is also a favoured target of rich adventure tourists in Canada, where sports hunting is legal, and of poachers in Russia, where a white fur coat can cost several thousand dollars.

Other man-made hazards have also emerged as the Arctic nations rush to take advantage of the dormant riches in the region, with growing oil, mining, shipping, military and tourism activities there putting ever more pressure on the polar bear.

They are also exposed to toxic substances like PCB that flow into the region on the back of ocean and atmospheric currents, breaking down the mammals’ immune systems and reproductive capabilities.

Despite the bleak outlook, WWF insists there is still hope for the king of the Arctic.

“We know that polar bears have survived past warming events. We don’t know how but if we provide them with space, they’ll adapt as best as they can,” York said.

Arctic snow harbors deadly assassin

Heavy and prolonged snowfall can bring about unexpected conditions that encourage fungal growth, leading to the death of plants in the Arctic, according to experts.

A new international study confirms that whilst snow has an insulating effect which helps plants to grow bigger, heavy and prolonged snow can, in certain circumstances, also encourage the rapid and extensive growth of killer fungal strains.

The research results, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, show for the first time the potential long term effects of unexpected fungal development on an arctic landscape. Extensive damage to a pervasive species under snowier conditions would leave gaps for another plant to take its place over time but could also alter the food-web for insects, voles, lemmings and their predators.

Co-author of the report, Dr. Robert Baxter, School of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Durham University, said: “We were surprised to find that this extremely hardy tundra vegetation was killed off by fungal attack.

“In the first few years, as expected, the insulating effect of the snow helped the vegetation to grow, but after six years a tipping point was reached where the fungus spread with great speed and destroyed the plants.

“We need to look more carefully in the future at longer term vegetation and fungus life cycles to see if this is something that could recur and be more destructive over time.”

The research team from Durham University, UK; Umea University, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala, Sweden; and the Finnish Forest Research Institute, compared the effects of normal snowfall conditions and increased snow conditions on vegetation.

Researchers used snow fences to maintain increased snow conditions, and found that the fungus, Arwidssonia empetri, increased under heavier and prolonged snow cover killing the majority of the shoots of one of the dominant plant species in that area – the dwarf shrub Empetrum hermaphroditum. The team’s unexpected finding followed a decision to keep the experiment running longer than was originally planned.

The researchers believe that the findings highlight unforeseen elements that should be factored into future modelling of the impacts of climate change and its effects on vegetation and food-web chains.

Co-author of the report, Johan Olofsson, Department of Ecology and Environmental Science, Umea University, Sweden, said: “We set out to look at the effects of climate change and the potential of heavier precipitation and snowfall on plants and the processes that influence growth, decomposition and soil nutrients.

“Shrubs are an important part of the arctic vegetation and we did not expect to find a deadly species-to-species effect influenced by this manipulated snow accumulation.”

Snow usually protects arctic plants through the long winter period as it maintains a warmer local environment around the overwintering plants and helps them to grow bigger and faster.

During the seven year experiment, the researchers observed steady plant growth under the protection of the snow’s insulating blanket. In year six, the fungus spread rapidly, killing the plant and changing the vegetation from a natural carbon sink to a net carbon source.

Co-author of the report, Lars Ericson, Department of Ecology and Environmental Science, Umea University, Sweden, said: “We discovered some surprising interactions between plants and other organisms in an area that is very important for the world’s climate. The results will enable us to have a better understanding of longer term climate change effects and extreme weather events, locally and regionally.”

The study has been funded by The Natural Environment Research Council, UK; the Centre for Environmental research in Umea, Sweden; and the Swedish Research Council for the Environment, Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning. The Abisko Scientific Research Station provided accommodation, laboratory facilities and funding during the periods of field work. The research team is continuing the study to investigate the extent and duration of vegetation change under altered snow conditions.

Arctic shrews, parasites indicate climate change effect on ecosystems

The shrew and its parasites – even 40-year-old preserved ones – are the new indicators of environmental change, according to a Kansas State University researcher.

Andrew Hope, Kansas State University research assistant professor in the Division of Biology, and his colleagues across the U.S. have published “Shrews and Their Parasites: Small Species Indicate Big Changes” in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 2016 Arctic Report Card. The study indicates an expansion in the range of the forest-dwelling masked shrew in Alaska, while the range of its tundra neighbor to the north, the barren ground shrew, constricts and fragments whenever the climate warms.

According to Hope, the pointy-nose, often overlooked small insectivores are good indicators of environmental changes because they are found around the world and share space with large animals. Shrew population shifts can reflect changes in species that are more familiar to people but harder to work with, like caribou and moose, he said. The invasion of the masked shrew into the barren ground shrew’s territory also brings with it parasites and pathogens that can be transmitted among different shrews and possibly to other animals.

“Each shrew carries within it or on it whole communities of other species,” Hope said. “Most people don’t know what a shrew is but they are an important part of community dynamics around the world. We can use small mammals, like shrews, as a tool to understand the processes of change. Taking it a step further, we learn how parasites and pathogens spread through the environment.”

The researchers are using field collections of shrews archived in museums to understand how the populations of shrews and their parasites change in response to changes in the environment. From these collections, the researchers can tell that this is not the first time the climate has warmed and the barren ground shrew’s range has constricted – but the current rate of that change is unprecedented.

“The tundra community has survived previous warm periods, and then expanded back out again when it got cold,” Hope said. “We are at a point now where it is as warm as it ever was in the history of these species and we’re moving into a phase that’s unknown.”

Hope said that they used data from the last 20-30 years to predict the near future, but recording good data from shrews is complex. It requires getting all their parts – bones, organs, parasites and the hide – from field collections and preserving them in museums and research institutions so that people can use them for science now and in the future. With advances in genomics technology, they can use the shrews’ DNA to determine species range, population size and responses to environmental change. Then they can make predictions for the next 50-100 years based on what scientists have determined about future climate change.

“We use small mammals, shrews in particular, because they are there all the time,” Hope said. “They are a permanent part of the landscape and are better indicators of change than caribou or birds that migrate every year to avoid the worst conditions. The changes are literally recorded in their DNA.”

Since shrews are so small, biologists often placed the whole body in ethanol, which preserved even the intestinal parasites and pathogens.

“Now, we can take shrews that are 40-50 years old from a vat of ethanol and basically sequence everything they ate, all the parasites inside them, and then look on the outside for more parasites plus get genetics of the shrew itself,” Hope said. “We can begin to recreate their diets and their parasite communities from decades ago and then compare that with the ones now.”

According to Hope, even a shrew skin that has been in a museum collection for more than 20 years may retain its parasites, such as lice and ticks, which can be a gold mine for researchers’ understanding of co-evolutionary history of species.

“We can go back and comb through a preserved skin from 20 years ago and pick out the parasites,” Hope said. “We look at historic specimens and the relationships with parasite communities; they may still have tapeworms but they may be different ones than today’s specimens, telling us about how communities change through time.”

Based on Alaska’s climate information and the genetic data collected from the specimens from 1981-2010, Hope and his colleagues predict further expansion north of the masked shrew and fragmentation of the barren ground shrew’s range, with a lot of overlap by 2020 and continued range constriction of the barren ground shrew by 2080. As overlap increases, so do the interactions among these different communities.

“We are utilizing these components of biodiversity together and getting really comprehensive samples from a broad range,” Hope said. “This gives us a much fuller picture from organisms that we don’t think about to help us understand organisms that we care more about, such as economically important species – including humans.”

Arctic shipping set to explode in legal vacuum, experts warn

As the Arctic ice cap melts away, shipping in the environmentally fragile region is expected to balloon, but there is virtually no legal framework to regulate the new activity, experts cautioned Monday.

“The problem is that the ice is going to recede and we are going to see an increase in the economic activity in this area … There is going to be a huge expansion of shipping,” said Tatiana Saksina of the WWF’s International Arctic Programme.

When the Northwest Passage becomes free of ice in the summer months, something scientists say could happen in a matter of years, “there will be an invasion of alien species, we’re going to see over-fishing, we’re going to see an expansion of petroleum development … Far stricter rules are needed,” she told AFP.

Saksina is one of around 40 legal experts gathered at the University of Akureyri in northern Iceland for a three-day conference aimed at staking out a new legal framework for the fragile and changing polar regions.

While commercial activities in the Arctic have so far been limited by the region’s inaccessibility and its extreme weather conditions, scientists now say it is a question of “when”, not “if,” the ice cap will vanish during summer.

An ice-free North Pole holds the promise of far shorter shipping routes between Europe and Asia and of making the region’s untold wealth of natural resources, including oil and gas, more accessible.

Yet as governments and companies line up to get in on the action, experts warn there are still virtually no laws regulating their activities in a region with one of the world’s most fragile ecosystems.

While there are already certain regulations in place, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, David Vanderzwaag of Canada’s Dalhousie University points out that they are mainly non-binding general guidelines that do not take into account the specific nature of the Arctic.

“We really are moving into an era where guidelines will no longer be adequate. We need binding requirements,” he told AFP.

“We will have more tourism ships going up, eventually more minerals being shipped out of the Arctic, oil and gas being shipped out. All these things are on the horizon, and some are already happening, and the question is, are we prepared?” he asked.

“Globally, there’s a considerable amount of pollution that is allowed into the oceans, but the question is, are the global environmental standards adequate for the Arctic? And if there is a problem with a tourism ship up there, are we prepared to deal with that?” he continued.

Saksina agreed, pointing out that “we are already witnessing the expansion of tourism. All these cruise ships in the Arctic obviously put pressure on the marine environment, but first and foremost we see here a danger for human life, because if something happens in these waters there is no mechanism for response.”

“It’s a quite dangerous situation,” she said, stressing that the Arctic Ocean is particularly difficult to navigate due to floating ice blocks and lacking daylight.

“And nobody knows how to clean oil spills on ice. We have no technique to do it now,” she said.

Timo Koivurova of the University of Lapland’s Arctic Centre in Finland also emphasised the urgency of putting in place a binding legal framework that takes into account the peculiarities of the Arctic, insisting that unbridled, rapid change in the region could lead to catastrophe.

“The problem is that if and when these economic operations enter the area, then it is already too late to put in place any kind of international treaty,” he told AFP.

Arctic shipping routes open

Satellite measurements show we are heading for another year of below-average ice cover in the Arctic. As sea ice melts during the summer months, two major shipping routes have opened in the Arctic Ocean.

In 2008 satellites saw that the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route were open simultaneously for the first time since satellite measurements began in the 1970s – and now it has happened again.

While the Northern Sea Route above Russia (also known as the Northeast Passage) has been open to shipping traffic since mid-August, recent satellite data show that the most direct course in the Northwest Passage now appears to be navigable as well.

Located in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, the Northwest Passage can be a short cut for shipping between Europe and Asia – but with the opening of the sea route comes the potential for both sovereignty claims and marine species migration across the Arctic Ocean.

In 2007, Arctic sea ice hit a record low since satellite measurements began nearly 30 years before. That same year, the historically impassable Northwest Passage opened for the first time.

Unusual weather contributed to 2007’s record ice loss: skies opened over the central Arctic Ocean and wind patterns pushed warm air into the region, promoting a strong melt.

Weather patterns have been different this year, but the early opening of the passages indicates that we could be about to hit a new record low in ice cover.

“The minimum ice extent is still three to four weeks away, and a lot depends on the weather conditions over the Arctic during those weeks,” says Leif Toudal Pedersen, a senior scientist at the Danish Meteorological Institute.

“Whether we reach an absolute minimum or not, this year again confirms that we are in a new regime with substantially less summer ice than before.

“The last five summers are the five minimum ice extent summers on record.”

Every year, the Arctic Ocean experiences the formation and then melting of vast amounts of floating ice, but the rate of overall loss has accelerated.

During the last 30 years, satellites observing the Arctic have witnessed reductions in the minimum ice extent at the end of summer from around 8 million sq km in the early 1980s to the historic minimum of less than 4.24 million sq km in 2007.

Before the advent of satellites, obtaining measurements of sea ice was difficult: the Arctic is both inaccessible and prone to long periods of bad weather and extended darkness.

Radars on Earth observation satellites such as ESA’s Envisat are particularly suited to monitoring polar regions because they can acquire images through clouds and darkness.

In the coming weeks, ESA will continue to monitor the situation in the Arctic with its Envisat, CryoSat and SMOS satellites.

Arctic shipping route may take 20 years, Maersk CEO: FT

Commercial shipping routes across the Arctic will not be a reality for at least a decade or two, the head of the world’s biggest container line told the Financial Times on Monday.

Maersk chief executive Nils Andersen told the newspaper that an Arctic shortcut — expected to slash journey times between China and Europe — is “not something that will happen within the next 10 to 20 years.”

The first commercial Chinese vessel recently sailed through the Northeast Passage, prompting speculation about a boom in Arctic shipping.

The shipping route north of Russia has been opened up by global warming and cuts thousands of miles — and about two weeks — off the journey from China, the world’s biggest exporter, to its key European markets.

However it is currently only viable for commercial shipping for about four months a year when the polar ice melts enough to open up a safe route.

Icebreakers are nonetheless needed to assist the ships through the waters, rendering it a costly option.

Arctic shipping holds great promise for Asia

A shipping route through the Arctic’s melting ice holds great promise for Asian companies, experts say.

The Northern Sea Route, also called the Northeast Passage, follows along the coast of northern Russia between the Bering Strait in the east and the north cape of Norway in the west.

A report Sunday in the British newspaper The Guardian noted the Arctic’s summer ice cover has dropped by more than 40 percent in the last few decades, a notion “that is proving irresistible to shipping lines, not to mention mining companies as well as oil and gas exploration firms.”

In choosing the Arctic route, shippers bypass the fractious Suez Canal region amid increasing violence in Egypt. A longer route, around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, to avoid the Suez would result in higher shipping costs.

“The most significant impact will be on the energy sector, especially between the Far East and Europe,” Gary Li, a senior analyst at IHS Maritime, told The Wall Street Journal. Li emphasized Asian countries are well placed to exploit the route to access emerging oil and gas markets in Europe, especially Russia.

In May, China, India, Singapore, Japan and South Korea were granted observer status at the Arctic Council, an organization that focuses in part on boosting trade.

Earlier this month a 20,943-ton cargo ship operated by China’s state-owned Cosco Group sailed from Dalian in northeast China to Rotterdam via the Northeast Passage.

While the voyage from Asia to Europe through the Suez Canal takes about 48 days, traveling by the Northern Sea Route will take about 35 days, Cosco says.

The reduction in sailing time, notes the Journal report, can create savings for shippers to offset such costs as additional insurance and the hiring of ice breakers, which may be needed to clear the path for vessels.

Gas condensate and iron have been shipped via the Northern Sea Route in the last few years, and last year Russia’s Gazprom sent a load of liquefied natural gas to Japan as a test run.

However, the latest shipments on the Northern Sea Route include oil products headed east to Japan from Norway — one of which has already arrived — and high-quality diesel shipping from South Korea destined for Europe, the Journal report says, citing ship-tracking data.

The Guardian notes Russian authorities last week said permission had been granted for more than 370 ships to sale the route this year although it did not specify if those were energy-related shipments. Last year, only 46 ships sailed the entire length of the passage from Europe to Asia.

That compares with 18,000 vessels that passed through the Suez Canal in 2011, carrying 929 million tons of cargo.