The big thaw

Photo Credit: D. Lobusov, marinetraffic.com

The environment’s loss is shipping’s gain as global warming clears a path through the Arctic, shortening the route between Russia, and the US and China.

MarineTraffic Live Map image showing the Arctic route of the 128806 gt LNG carrier Nikolay Urvantsev from 13 June to 3 July this year. The ARC7-class vessel is part of the Yamal LNG fleet

The end of June brought startling details of a heatwave in the Arctic Circle. A region that is typically associated with brutal winters and year-round ice, saw the mercury peak at 48C at the end of the month.

This temperature was reached on 20 June close to the Siberian town of Verkhoyansk in the Arctic Circle, reported the Independent. Situated in Russia’s north-east, the town holds the record for having the hottest and coldest temperatures in the Arctic.

Meanwhile, a ‘heat dome’ – hot air trapped by the atmosphere  – covered the Pacific Northwest resulting in temperatures of 44C in some areas. The Guardian reported that the heatwave is believed to have caused the deaths of 500 people in the west Canadian province of British Columbia (BC), added to the wild fires that burned throughout the region, and had devastating effects on wildlife. One expert calculated that more than a billion marine animals may have died due to the extreme heat off of BC’s coast alone.

Global warming is a phenomenon that humans are being urged to fear for the sake of mankind and the planet. The UK-based Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit says on its website: “Human health is vulnerable to climate change. The changing environment is expected to cause more heat stress, an increase in waterborne diseases, poor air quality, and diseases transmitted by insects and rodents. Extreme weather events can compound many of these health threats.”

The impacts of global warming notwithstanding it does have benefits in certain small quarters – one example being the opening up of the Arctic as an alternative shipping route linking Northern Europe to China and vice versa. Scientists believe that the Arctic is warming up twice as fast as the rest of the planet, and the resultant melting ice is turning Russia’s ambitions to control a major trade route into an ever closer reality.

The Russia-administered Northern Sea Route (NSR) has been open to international vessels since 1991, and was for previous decades recognised as a navigable sea route during the Arctic’s warmer months (July to December) when conditions allowed vessels to transit the route. 

 Follow the route of the Nikolay Urvantsev on a 13-day journey through the NSR

The volume of vessels navigating the Northern Sea Route, however, is increasing as is the yearly window during which it is possible to navigate the route.

MarineTraffic data reveals that vessel volumes have risen sharply: 2017, 63 vessels; 2018, 55 vessels; 2019, 115 vessels; and, in 2020, 168 vessels, representing a 166% increase over the four-year period.

Further the data shows that whilst the busiest months (August and September) continue to be during the Arctic summer, there are increasing numbers of vessels using the route earlier in the year. It also highlights the expanding navigable window – last year LNG tanker Christophe de Margerie transited the NSR a month earlier than in previous years. 


Christophe de Margerie transits the NSR in May 2020

And in January this year the same vessel departed the Sabetta LNG terminal (completed in 2018) headed for Dalian, China.

According to news outlet Splash 24/7, “It marks another example of how Russia is ramping up its LNG exports from the far north to clients in Asia all year round.”

Vessel movements on the Northern Sea Route in 2018, 2019 and 2020

The commodities currently transported on the route are mainly iron ore, oil, liquefied natural gas and energy sources.

With cargoes such as these, and the Northern Sea Route offering significantly reduced sailing times, it is easy to understand why the route is considered commercially attractive. Russia is a significant energy exporter to the US and, according to Bloomberg, in 2020 was exporting 580,000 barrels of oil per day to US refineries.

Further, the sailing distances between the east-west trade flows of finished containerised goods would be reduced if utilised by container lines. According to MarineTraffic, the NSR between Shanghai, China and Antwerp in Northern Europe (34 days, 21 hours) is nearly two days shorter than going via the Suez Canal route (36 days, 18 hours), and nearly 15 days shorter than than the Cape of Good Hope (49 days, 5 hours), not only slashing sailing times, but also cutting ships’ fuel requirements and in turn emissions and costs.  

MarineTraffic Voyage Planner illustrates the different routes from China to Northern Europe via the NSR, the Suez Canal, the Panama Canal

A year-round route could soon be a reality, as the NSR becomes available for increasingly long periods each year.

Not all vessels are built to transit the Arctic waters of the NSR. The Christophe de Margerie is one of 15 icebreaker vessels developed to service the Yamal LNG gas plant that became operational in 2017. The vessels are operated by Sovcomflot, Dynagas, Teekay, MOL and Cosco Shipping.

The Financial Times wrote at the time of the plant’s opening that it has “defied western sanctions, deepened Moscow’s energy co-operation with China and lifted its ambitions to become a major liquid natural gas player. Funded by Chinese banks and part-owned by France’s Total, the Yamal LNG project controlled by Russia’s Novatek will produce 16.5m tonnes of super-cooled gas a year by 2019, in a boost to Russia’s ambitions of tapping vast hydrocarbon deposits in the frozen Arctic and a test case for the viability of the so-called northern sea route to Asia.”

Few would argue that the impacts of climate change on human health and the planet can be justified by the spin-offs of shorter shipping trade routes. But shipping will always seek the fastest, cheapest and most efficient route to get cargo to its destination, and whilst society seeks ways to de-couple from carbon the route through the Arctic seems secure. 

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