The cold blue Arctic Ocean has been open for shipping all summer, a clear swathe of water stretching from Norway's north cape to the Bering Sea and Russia's far east.
There haven't been too many venturing into its sea lanes so far, just a few pioneers testing the waters.
Last week, the Ob River, a liquefied natural gas (LNG) carrier, successfully completed the world's first LNG voyage via the far northern sea route. And it was quicker and cheaper than the conventional route from Norway to Japan.
"If a cargo ship with a maximum load capacity of 40,000 tonnes can pass through the northern sea route, that will shorten the journey by 22 days and cost US$839,000 [Dh3 million] less than going through the Suez Canal," says Felix Tschudi, the chairman of Tschudi Shipping in Norway.
The Ob River, chartered by the Russian energy giant Gazprom, left the port of Hammerfest in Norway on November 7 and arrived at the LNG terminal in Tobata, Japan, last Wednesday. Its ship and crew delivered 150,000 cubic metres of gas to eager Japanese consumers and achieved what navigators from the 15th-century explorer John Cabot down to Sir John Franklin, whose entire expedition vanished in northern Canada in 1847, had only dreamed of.
All thanks to the melting Arctic ice cap. And it is disappearing fast.
According to US government scientists, satellite imagery showed Arctic sea ice on September 16 had shrunk to its smallest since records began 33 years ago. The average annual minimum area since 1979 has been 6.2 million square kilometres - this year it is just 3.4 million sq km.
But the jury is still out on whether that means the dreams of Cabot and Franklin have come true, yet.
Gas shippers want it to be true because nuclear power plants in Japan, after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, have shut down, spurring a grab for gas to make up the energy shortfall.
And shipping gas over the top of the planet rather than across the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal, Red and Arabian Seas, Indian Ocean, the Malacca Straits and the South China Sea is a lot quicker - and cheaper. Also, it avoids the pirate-infested waters off Somalia and in the Malacca Straits.
But the Ob River had some heavyweight help on its record-setting voyage. It had to be accompanied by two Russian nuclear-powered icebreakers for much of the trip.
The first half, between the Barents Sea and the Kara Sea, was relatively ice-free, but during the second half of the passage, from the Vilkitsky Strait to the Bering Strait, the LNG carrier was butting through "young", or recently formed, ice with a thickness of up 30cm.
Also known as the north-east passage, the northern sea route has only recently become accessible to large vessels as the Arctic ice melts. Germany was the first western country to sail a merchant ship on the route, in 2009, and was soon followed by Japan, Denmark, Canada and the United Kingdom. Last year, a total of 37 vessels made the trip.
Following a northern course - west above Canada or east above Russia - cuts the journey time to Asia dramatically. The Rotterdam to Yokohama voyage, for example, is one-third shorter via the Arctic than the route through the Suez Canal.
A ship can save 1,000 tonnes of fuel using the route, says Mr Tschudi.
Russia's environment agency has declared the northern sea route open for cargo traffic between Europe and Asia.
For Russia, it is of national importance. Vladimir Putin, the president, has vowed to transform the Soviet-era Arctic route, which was first opened in 1932 between Arkhangelsk and the Bering Strait, into a year-round passage. Commodity producers such as Norilsk Nickel and EuroChem have already started sending test shipments and with the help of icebreakers, the route has remained navigable between July to last month.
To ensure the route remains open for longer, Russia plans to build the world's biggest and most efficient nuclear-powered icebreaker, able to navigate in deep Arctic waters as well as shallow Siberian rivers. The aim is to attract more foreign commercial ships on the route, says Matthew Willis, of the defence think tank Royal United Services Institute.
"It is the best channel in the Arctic because the transpolar route and the north-west passage aren't practicable," says Mr Willis.
"Any shipping into the Arctic is probably going to go into the Russian Arctic, so the Russians are trying to make it more attractive to ships."
The state nuclear power corporation, Rosatom, signed a contract for the construction of the new-generation icebreaker LK-60 in August. It will be 173 metres long and 34 metres wide, about 14 metres longer and 4 metres wider than the current biggest icebreaker, and is due to be completed by the end of 2017.
The Russians also intend to build a new port on the route. Sabetta, on the Yamal Peninsula will be one of the biggest Arctic ports when it opens.
Linked with the South Tambey gasfield and a major projected LNG plant, the port is designed to handle more than 30 million tonnes of cargo per year.
The first phase, due to open in 2014, is planned to be operational all year round, despite the highly complex ice conditions of the Ob Bay.
But wildly varying conditions in the Arctic Ocean from year to year so far are not an attractive prospect for companies that need to schedule crossings during a short-lived period and in a region that is frozen over for the best part of the year.
While this year is proving to be exceptionally mild, there is no guarantee such conditions would be repeated in the next, says Valérie Masson-Delmott, a palaeoclimatologist from the Climate and Environment Sciences Laboratory near Paris.
The northern sea route is far from becoming a rival to the Suez Canal, just yet, says Ms Masson-Delmotte.
"The polar ice cap is currently smaller than it's ever been. There's certainly a new channel opening up. But it will be a few decades yet before we get to a point when there'll be busy commercial shipping routes."
There is an expectation that because of changing climatic conditions, sea traffic across the northern sea route will increase rapidly.
But Gunnar Sander, a senior adviser at the Norwegian Polar Institute, believes there are limits to the growth.
"Nineteen thousand ships went through the Suez Canal last year - around 40 went through the northern sea route. There's a huge difference," he says.
There is also the considerable issue of the infrastructure needed to accommodate an increased flow of traffic. There are very few ports along the route, which would pose a problem in the case of an accident and makes the cost of insurance substantial.
Each commercial vessel would have to travel with an icebreaker escort, adding about $400,000 per crossing, says the Baltic and International Maritime Council, the world's largest international shipping association that oversees 65 per cent of the world's tonnage.
But the true cost of the venture could be the environment.
Environmentalists argue that pollution from the vessels will accelerate the melting of the polar ice cap, raising sea levels even higher and faster. They also warn an oil spill in the region would be far more complex to manage due to the special formation of ice masses.
The European environmental group Bellona describes the Arctic as "a more sensitive environment" that would be better left alone.
"We should abstain from developing the Arctic," warns Igor Kudrik, the project coordinator.
That seems an increasingly forlorn hope.