The Venta Maersk seeks to become the first container ship to pass along the Northern Sea Route owing to climate change.
There’s a new milestone in the Arctic, as the Venta Maersk seeks to become the first container ship to pass along the Northern Sea Route (NSR) from Russia’s Vladivostok to St. Petersburg – a journey made possible by the lack of ice because of climate change.
The vessel is headed for South Korea before making the closely watched Arctic trip. Any potential success may be good news for shipping and industry, and for the end users they serve, but the development has met with alarm from environmental activists who aren’t warming to the idea of a less-frozen world.
Arctic routes aren’t a new idea and they’ve been studied for years, but Maersk is the first company to try containers. The company can save two weeks in travel time without having to navigate a semicircle across the south, through the Mediterranean and Suez Canal into the Indian Ocean, before reaching Russia’s east.
“The trial passage will enable us to explore the operational feasibility of container shipping through the Northern Sea Route and to collect data,” Maersk said in a statement. “This is a one-off trial designed to explore an unknown route for container shipping and to collect scientific data.”
The new ice-class ship can carry 3,600 containers along the northern route, which is now accessible about three months of each year. The company said that “may change with time.” Yet it already has, and tanker ships – including one from Russian natural gas company Novatek – made the trip earlier this year. China also is focused on northern shipping routes that didn’t exist until the melt of recent decades.
As recently as 2010, the ice-free conditions on most Arctic routes lasted about 30 days per year. In Canada’s Northwest Passage, where similar Arctic conditions exist, it was little more than a decade ago that the route was open (during the summer months of 2007) for the first time in recorded history. Even those open to the idea of economic and environmental benefits from improved maritime trade routes do so with hesitation.
“A 40 percent reduction in distance using the NSR does not mean a corresponding 40 percent in cost savings due to many factors, including: higher building costs for ice-classed ships, non-regularity and slower speeds, navigation difficulties and greater risks, as well as the need for extra ice breaker service,” wrote the Dutch and Danish authors of a 2010 study published in the Journal of Transport Geography.
There are compelling arguments for why journeys that are 6,000 nautical miles shorter than a long sail around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope – and 25 percent shorter than the Suez Canal passage – will reduce carbon emissions. Yet a 2017 study that revisited the issue for Marine Policy raised concerns of new environmental damage, and currents and other safety risks, without any short-term emissions savings.
“This is because the use of Arctic routes may lead to increased concentrations of non-CO2 gases, aerosols and particles in the Arctic, which can change radiative forcing (e.g. deposition of black carbon on sea ice and snow) and produce more complex regional warming/cooling effects,” the study said. In other words, their work suggests a net warming before any cooling gains would emerge in later decades.
That’s a worry for Greenpeace Nordic and other environmental advocates. “Given renewed concerns about the negative impact of black and brown carbon from ship exhausts in the North in form of accelerating the retreat of snow and ice, from an environmental point of view a regular container shipping business in the North is not desirable,” said senior fellow Kathrin Stephen of the Arctic Institute.
Add in the concern over fuels and oil spills, and there’s little yet to celebrate.