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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Arctic ice cover receded to near record lows this summer, opening elusive northern trade routes from Asia to the West, Russia's climate research agency said on Wednesday.
After the third hottest year on record since 1936 in the Arctic last year, ice cover has melted as much as 56 percent more than average across northern shipping routes, making navigation in the perilous waters "very easy," it said.
"Since the beginning of August icebreaker-free sailing is open on almost all the routes," the climate monitoring agency said on its website www.meteoinfo.ru.
It added that the mild conditions would last through September on shipping lanes that are tens of thousands of kilometers shorter than southern alternatives.
With retreating ice opening new strategic trade routes, Russia hopes to make Arctic passage a competitor to the Suez Canal, profiting from taxes and the lease of its unique nuclear icebreaker fleet to escort cargo ships along its Siberian coast.
Despite higher costs, Russian state shipping giant Sovcomflot sent more cargoes of gas condensate on the Northern Sea Route this year, an ambitious move that highlights the Kremlin's drive to mark its stake in the energy-rich region.
If the current pace of ice melt continues, the Arctic Ocean could become entirely ice-free during the summer months by 2050, Russia's top forecaster Alexander Frolov predicted last year.
But mariners admit many obstacles, such as ice-floes and shallow waters, remain before the northern Russian shipping lane can take business from existing southern thoroughfares -- not least a summer that lasts just a few weeks.
Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel, editing by Tim Pearce