Scandinavian shipowners say cargo routes through the Arctic, made possible by warmer temperatures, would save money and emissions
John Vidal, environment editor
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 5 October 2011 10.57 BST
Supertankers and giant cargo ships could next year travel regularly between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via the Arctic to save time, money and emissions, say Scandinavian shipowners.
New data from companies who have taken advantage of receding Arctic sea ice this year to complete several voyages across the north of Russia shows that the “northern sea route” can save even a medium-sized bulk carrier 18 days and 580 tonnes of bunker fuel on a journey between northern Norway and China. The voyage would normally take upwards of 40 days.
Even bigger fuel and time savings have been reported this week by Danish shipping company Nordic Bulk Carriers which says it saved a third of its usual costs and nearly half the time in shipping goods to China via the Arctic.
The route, which cuts around 4,000 nautical miles off the southern Suez route from the Atlantic to the Pacific, has barely needed an ice-breaker since July as annual sea ice melted to a near record low extent. “We saved 1,000 tonnes of bunker fuel – nearly 3,000 tonnes of CO2 – on one journey between Murmansk and north China,” said Christian Bonfils, a director of Nordic Bulk Carriers in Oslo.
The shipowners, who anticipate that the northern route could gradually be opened for four to six months a year as air and sea temperatures increase, are exploring the possibility of regular summer passages through the Arctic ocean. This could save them €180,000-300,000 on each voyage, they say.
“The window for sailing the route is four months now, but the Russians say it is seven [if the cargo ships are accompanied by Russian atomic icebreakers]. When we can save 22 days on transportation, it is very good business for us,” said Bonfils.
Apart from time savings, the shipowners can avoid Somali pirates and the high insurance premiums they attract if their ships pass through the Suez canal.
The Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, last week predicted that the route would soon rival the Suez canal as a quicker trade link from Europe to Asia. “The Northern sea route will rival traditional trade lanes in service fees, security and quality,” he told a conference organised by the Russian Geographical Society in Arkhangelsk in September.
This is seen as wildly optimistic by the Scandinavian shipowners, who are nevertheless encouraged by the speed of change in high latitudes. The Arctic was crossed in a record eight days in August by an STI Heritage tanker on a route between the US and Thailand, and on 20 August, a 160,000 tonne supertanker with 120,000 tonnes of gas made the passage, becoming the largest commercial ship ever to sail the route.
The route, which used to be known as the North-east passage, runs along the Russian Arctic coast from Murmansk on the Barents Sea, along Siberia, to the Bering Strait. Environment groups have warned that an Arctic shipping rush could accelerate global warming. While they accept that ships would burn less fuel and emit less CO2, they fear oil spills and other maritime accidents, as well as “black carbon”, the sooty residue of partly burned fuel which is deposited on ice and is a short-lived but powerful “forcer” of climate change.
“The prospect of the creeping industrialisation of the high north is deeply worrying. More ships bring more chance of major accidents and will mean more climate pollutants on the back of more melting of the ice,” said Ben Ayliffe, Arctic campaigner with Greenpeace.
But shipowners cautioned that special ice-strengthened ships were needed and it is too early to build ships especially for the journey.
In a further sign that the Arctic was opening up, Russian atomic icebreakers received 15 requests to escort Arctic voyages in 2011, against four in 2010.
Canadian and American maritime experts have estimated that 2% of global shipping could be diverted to the Arctic by 2030, rising to 5% by 2050.