While shorter shipping journeys reduce emissions, environmentalists are concerned that more traffic through the Arctic will add to the amount of black carbon (particles of pure carbon), settling in the snow from tanker smokestacks. When that soot darkens the surface of the ice, it speeds up the warming process by absorbing more of the Sun’s energy.
Scientists are seeing a rapid change in the Arctic. The Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia lost about half its ice coverage during a two-week period in February 2018. Ice began melting in the Arctic as spring approached in the northern hemisphere, and then it started building again toward the end of September 2018, as the days grow shorter and cooler.
A total of 5.7 million square kilometers (2.2 million square miles) of ice covered the Arctic in July 2018, according to the Colorado-based National Snow & Ice Data Center. Through the first two weeks of August, ice extent declined by 65,000 square kilometers each day, according to the NSIDC.
Turbulent weather in the area also churns the seas, making it almost impossible to clean up anything that’s spilled. The International Maritime Organization is considering rules that would ban burning heavy fuel oil in Arctic waters, extending restrictions already in place in the Antarctic.
The waters at the top of the world have warmed rapidly over the last four decades, at nearly twice the rate of warming in the rest of the world, according to the Arctic Council, an international group that studies the region. The United Nations’ panel on climate change says the dramatic warming is unprecedented in human history.
Traveling across the Arctic Ocean can reduce ships’ travel time 40 percent by allowing them to go north instead of around southern Asia and through the Suez Canal or past the Cape of Good Hope in Africa. That could mean lower fuel costs, fewer canal transit fees, reduced danger from pirates, and less wear and tear on the vessel.
But commercial customers also demand reliability on delivery dates, and the Northern Sea Route could close quickly if weather suddenly changed, potentially causing a container ship to get stuck in ice until rescued by bigger ice-breakers remains a possibility. Such unpredictability has until now led commercial shipping companies to stay away.
China has already announced an ambitious plan to create a “polar Silk Road” by developing shipping lanes opened up by global warming. The Arctic Shipping Forum says 300 ships have used the Northern Sea Route, but the Venta Maersk is the first container vessel for commercial shipping to cross.
“In the last two, three years the ice melt in summer has been so extensive that developments are getting very hard to predict. I will not rule out that some shipping agencies may reach the necessary level of flexibility so that they can offer regular container service in the North East Passage during summer within the next 10 years,” said Lasserre.
LNG exporters are taking advantage of the open waters, most notably around the Yamal LNG gas liquefaction plant in northern Siberia. The project owned by Total, Novatek and their Chinese partners has custom-built ARC 7 tankers rugged enough to cut through whatever ice remains in the area. That enables them to sail without help from icebreakers west to Europe year round and east to Asia during the summer months. In the coming years, more routes will open for ships to sail without an icebreaker.
The Yamal venture’s Christophe de Margerie was the world’s first ice-breaking LNG tanker built and collected Yamal’s first cargo to make the the trip westward through the Northern Sea Route.
In early 2018 though, the Eduard Toll, became the first LNG tanker to ever use the full Northern Sea Route in the winter. It traveled from a South Korean shipyard to Sabetta and collected a cargo there from the Yamal LNG plant, then delivered it to France. That shaved about 3,000 nautical miles off the traditional route through the Suez Canal.
In July China received two cargoes from Yamal from the first LNG ships to cross the Arctic without help from ice breakers. The net voyage time from the port of Sabetta through the Northern Sea Route to the destination the Chinese port of Jiangsu Rudong was completed in 19 days, compared with 35 days for the traditional eastern route via the Suez Canal and the Strait of Malacca.
Routes like that may save Yamal USD 46 million in shipping costs for the remainder of the year, those savings could quadruple by 2023, Bloomberg NEF said in a note.
Traffic is picking up. The Northern Sea Route saw 9.7 million tons of cargo shipped through it in 2017, according to the Russian Federal Agency for Maritime and River Transport. There were 615 voyages along the Northern Sea Route through July 15, 2018, about the same as in 2017.
Although the Northern route offers potential to shipping companies, it is in early stages of development. In addition, there are very few ports along the route for use in emergencies, which increases insurance rates. Finally, the cost of an icebreaker escort must also be factored in.
As the ice caps continue to shrink, Arctic trade routes remain open for longer periods of time. While environmentalists worry about the causes and negative impacts of global warming – as well as about the effects of new accessibility to the Arctic’s resources – shipping and energy companies are increasingly optimistic about the potential that these new routes hold.
(References: Insurance Journal, Phys.org, ICTSD)
Sea News Feature, January 22