REYKJAVIK/OSLO (Reuters) - An icebreaker has become the first ship from China to cross the Arctic Ocean, underscoring Beijing's growing interest in a remote region where a record thaw caused by climate change may open new trade routes.
The voyage highlights how China, the world's no.2 economy, is extending its reach to the Arctic which is rich in oil and gas and is a potential commercial shipping route between the north Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
The icebreaker Xuelong, or Snow Dragon, arrived in Iceland this week after sailing the Northern Route along the coast of Russia.
Expedition leader Huigen Yang, head of the Polar Research Institute of China, said he had expected a lot more ice along the route at this time of year than the vessel encountered.
"To our astonishment ... most part of the Northern Sea Route is open," he told Reuters TV. The icebreaker would return to China by a route closer to the North Pole.
He said that Beijing was interested in the "monumental change" in the polar environment caused by global warming.
Sea ice floating on the Arctic Ocean is on track to beat a record low set in 2007, making the region more accessible but threatening the hunting lifestyles of indigenous peoples and wildlife such as polar bears and seals.
The thaw is slowly opening up the Arctic as a short-cut route - the German-based Beluga Group, for instance, sent a cargo vessel north from Korea to Rotterdam in 2009.
"The (Chinese) journey indicates a growing interest in the melting of the ice in the northern regions and how climate change is affecting the globe and the future of all nations," the office of Icelandic President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson said.
Arctic sea ice extent on August 13 fell to 5.09 million square km (1.97 million square miles) - an area smaller than Brazil, according to the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center.
Sea ice reaches its smallest in September before expanding again as winter approaches. China has overtaken the United States as the top greenhouse gas emitter, mainly from burning fossil fuels, ahead of the European Union, India and Russia.
"China's interest is a mix of business, science and geo-politics," said Jan Gunnar Winther, director of the Norwegian Polar Institute.
For countries outside the region like China, there may be more opportunities to supply equipment to aid drilling, he said. South Korea's Hyundai, for instance, is building a floating production unit for the Goliat oilfield in Norway's Barents Sea.
Winther said that research into climate change in the Arctic was also relevant to China's understanding of weather patterns that could affect its farmers.
China has applied to become an observer at the Arctic Council, made up of the United States, Russia, Canada, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark and Iceland.
"The application will be handled in May next year," said Nina Buvang Vaaja, head of the Arctic Council Secretariat.
Other applicants seeking to join the Council, which oversees management of the region, are Japan, South Korea, the European Union Commission and Italy. Germany, Britain, France, Poland, Spain and the Netherlands are already observers.
Reporting By Alister Doyle; Editing by Pravin Char