Melting ice may change world shipping

Global warming could pave the way for a boom in commercial shipping across the eastern Arctic. Use of the Northern Sea Route, which links the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, would save companies time and cut fuel costs.

But environmentalists believe this breakthrough shows just how alarmingly thin the Artic ice has become.

Two German vessels have become the first to operate what's called a commercial transit of the Northern Sea Route, also known as the Northeast Passage. The route is 5,000 kilometers shorter than going through the Suez Canal and saves fuel and up to a week on a journey from Europe to Japan.

“The important point is these aren’t Russian ships. Russians have been using the route since the 1930s. The Soviet Union always relied on icebreakers and today – if the summer is warm – there is less ice. And if the Arctic ice continues melting, the whole structure of world merchant shipping might change,” believes Karen Stepanyan, deputy director of Sovfracht shipping.

According to scientists, the once-impenetrable ice has been retreating rapidly due to rising temperatures caused by global warming. Environmentalists are cautious.

“The big picture is this: the North Pole’s ice cap is one of the planet’s defining features and in one person’s lifetime it is going to go – completely go in the summer times,” says polar explorer Pen Hadow.

“We can not avoid using the seas and oceans as a way of transportation. But it means we have to think about the mitigations of this impact – especially given that Arctic system ecosystem is very vulnerable to any interventions,” explains Nina Korobova, Managing Director of Global Carbon. “So it means that when considering in more detail the possibility of using this Northern Sea Route more often – we need to think how to do it in environmentally sound way.”

Russian Authorities and the German ship owners are keen to prove the safety and economic efficiency of the passage, and its ecological advantages. They believe it could be a valuable alternative to the Suez Canal in summer.

By using the Arctic passage, the German company saved about $300,000 per vessel, but what's more important, it claims, is the reduction in the environmental impact.

“If we had taken the southern way – let’s say for example from South Korea to a European port then the voyage time would have been 32 days. Using the Northern Sea Route it would only be 23 days; that is, nine days less. Therefore if you have less voyage time, obviously you need a lesser tanker of fuel in order to go from the port of loading to the port of destination and the port of discharging. And therefore, by using a lesser tanker you can also reduce the emission,” Verena Beckhusen, spokeswoman for Beluga Shipping GmbH told RT.

The Russian government technically opened the Northeast Passage for international vessels after the breakup of the Soviet Union, but the use of the waterway requires a permit because it crossed Russian territorial waters.

The new policy is to promote the route. Russia’s transport ministry is considering lowering the fee charged for escorting and rescue cover, as ice can still pose some difficulties on the way.