The world’s newest shipping route: the Arctic

The Christophe de Margerie tanker in Sabetta, Russia.
The Christophe de Margerie tanker in Sabetta, Russia.
Image: REUTERS/Olesya Astakhova
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In March, when the Ever Given had stopped up the Suez, Russian officials invited shipping companies to consider the Arctic. Send your cargo from Asia to Europe through the Northern Sea Route, they urged. It knocks 4,000 nautical miles off the Suez journey, and the route grows freer and freer of ice every year.

Ever since the 17th century, when mariners began seeking the mythologized Northwest Passage above Canada, the great sail over the top of the world has been an object of desire because of its potential to abbreviate transit times. In an era of vanishing Arctic ice, these routes are turning into reality. Two years ago, Mike Pompeo, the then-US secretary of State, welcomed the “21st century Suez and Panama Canals” of the Arctic, which promised to “potentially slash the time it takes to travel between Asia and the West by as much as 20 days.”

That future is, in a sense, already here. In 2019, ships made 2,694 voyages using the Northern Sea Route, but only 37 of these were transits through the length of the route; the remaining were shorter trips on just a segment of the route. In 2020, the number of transits had risen to 62.

In winters past, when the Arctic still bristled with thick ice, it was largely the preserve of icebreakers: powerful, barrel-shaped vessels with sharp noses. “As it travels, the icebreaker crawls onto ice with its nose and breaks it under its own weight,” said a spokesperson for Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned atomic energy company, which runs the world’s only fleet of nuclear icebreakers. “The shattered ice spreads apart and is warmed by the sides of the vessel, which creates an ice-free channel behind the icebreaker.” Container ships and tankers had to follow in their wake, like pups after their mother.

Rosatom’s first icebreaker, the Lenin, was commissioned in 1959 and could break ice up to 2 meters thick. The next generation of Rosatom vessels will break ice up to 4.3 meters thick, the spokesperson said, and will cost up to $1.72 billion apiece. The era of icebreakers isn’t over, the spokesperson insisted: By 2030, Rosatom plans to have a fleet of 10 nuclear icebreakers, and envisions operating them for at least another half-century.

Increasingly, as the Arctic warms, ships are shrugging off their icebreaker chaperones. As summers lengthen, the waters remain navigable for more weeks in the year. And even in winters now, as the mid-January voyage of the Christophe de Margerie showed this year, tankers and container ships are able to churn through the thinning ice themselves. But technology notwithstanding, the future of Arctic shipping isn’t clear-cut, especially as climate change alarms sound more and more insistently.

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New ice-class ships can do a lot…

The de Margerie, built in Daewoo’s shipyards in South Korea, was designed by Aker Arctic, a Finnish firm that engineers the world’s hardiest ice-class ships. The ship is designated Arc7—the highest ice-class—and it wouldn’t have been possible without one key breakthrough in the 1990s. Reko-Antti Suojanen, Aker’s CEO, calls it the invention of the “double action ship.”

Most ships have a propeller and rudder system on their sterns, but Aker’s engineers found a way to shift that apparatus under the ship, Suojanen said. “Once you did that, you could shape the stern into an icebreaker.” When an Arc7 ship meets ice, it turns around and plows through it in reverse, operating at 50% of full power. “This means that a cargo ship or a tanker with fairly normal engine power can break its own ice, without an icebreaker by its side,” Suojanen said. “That’s a huge cost saving.”

Aker’s biggest order of these ships has come from Novatek, the gas company that operates the Yamal gas facility on Russia’s northern coast. Each of the 15 Arc7 tankers that Aker designed for Novatek can break up to 1.8 meters of ice and carries 170,000 cubic meters of natural gas. A single tanker costs $340 million. Novatek wants to order 42 additional tankers.

The icemelt in the Arctic, Suojanen said, will make shipping more affordable. Arc7 ships, intended for the iciest conditions, are costly. But companies can use cheaper, less sophisticated ships to push through the ice as it increasingly thins. Deep winter is still a difficult time to traverse the Northern Sea Route; as with the de Margerie’s voyage, companies are still experimenting with Arc7 ships in that season. “But 25 years ago, the route was most easily navigable for only four or six weeks of the year, and now it opens in mid-June and stays fairly easy until November, almost half a year,” he said. That period will only continue to lengthen.

Suojanen isn’t certain that oil and gas tankers will make up Aker’s long-term future. “The situation has to change somehow, because we know the environmental damage of fossil fuels,” he said. But there will be other kinds of shipping, he pointed out, predicting more container ships and more offshore mining projects. “And we’ve designed a special ship, which will be completed in Norway very soon: a combination of luxury cruise vessel and icebreaker, to run cruises to the North Pole.”

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…but the shipping industry is wary

While Arctic traffic will certainly rise, cargo ship companies aren’t preparing to swarm into the region any time soon. “There are standards you need for ships to operate safely,” Stuart Neil, the communications director at the International Chamber of Shipping, said. Storms and ice make Arctic waters riskier than those of the Indian Ocean or the Mediterranean Sea.

More importantly, the world’s supply chains have evolved to set up shipping routes “like rail schedules,” said Malte Humpert, the founder of a Washington DC-based think tank called the Arctic Institute. “By which I mean: The economics of scale work only if a ship with 20,000 containers can break journey again and again, to unload some containers and take on some more.”

Thus a journey from Asia to Europe is made economically feasible by its halts at ports along the way to pick up or drop off cargo—or both. Maersk’s route from Yokohama, Japan to Bremerhaven, Germany, for instance, calls at Shanghai, China; Colombo, Sri Lanka; Felixstowe, England; and Rotterdam, Germany, among others. “It isn’t often that you’ll have to send a ship full of fish from Vladivostok to Hamburg,” Humpert said.

Additionally, supply chains are finely calibrated, so that ships can’t be late in port even by a few hours. “That’s why, when there’s a traffic jam in the Suez, everyone freaks out,” Humpert said. The Arctic, with its storms and floating ice, doesn’t offer that predictability yet. “Maybe we’ll see 100 or 200 container ships transit through the Arctic in around 10 or 20 years,” Humpert said. “That’s just 1% of global trade.”

But even between these few hundred international cargo ships, the oil and gas tankers servicing new projects, vessels prospecting for metals, and ships running between domestic destinations in Russia or Canada, the Arctic’s local communities and environment will feel a severe impact, Humpert said.

The International Maritime Organization’s ban on the dirtiest kind of shipping fuel, for instance, includes several concessions and loopholes. Russia has resisted this ban and plans to continue running ships on heavy fuel oil in its own waters; many other ships have waivers that allow them to keep using this fuel until 2029. Burning heavy fuel oil spews thick emissions containing particulates of black carbon, which speed up the worst effects of climate change. Roughly 7-21% of the shipping industry’s warming impact is due to black carbon, according to the Clean Arctic Alliance (CAA), a group of nonprofits.

On May 20, 2021, after the Arctic Council met in Iceland, the CAA called on the eight member countries to do more to protect the Arctic from the impact of shipping—to reduce black carbon emissions and to eliminate heavy fuel oil use immediately. The Reykjavik Declaration, issued after the Council’s meeting, didn’t address these issues, said Sian Prior, the lead advisor to the CAA. Speed is of the essence, Prior said, “if progress is to be made in…protecting the remaining Arctic summer sea ice.”

Without urgent changes, the floes and banks of ice upon the ocean will grow grimy with carbon deposits. They’ll reflect less sun, soak up more heat. They’ll weaken and break up, they’ll melt, and eventually they’ll vanish altogether, turning the Arctic into a body of open water at the top of the world.