Russia’s Suez Canal? Ships Start Plying a Less-icy Arctic, Thanks to Climate Change


  • New trade route opens in Russia
  • Venta, an ice class vesssel sets sail on this route
  • Russia, China and commercial shipping shows interests in this Northern Sea Route
  • Transit reduced to 23 days for vessels, than 34 days via Suez canal
  • No more icy summers in the Artic in the future

The Venta Maersk is the world’s first container ship to attempt the Northern Sea Route, which fabled through the Northeast Passage that runs from the edge of Alaska to the top of Scandinavia along Russia’s desolate Siberian coastline.

In its historic first transit of the Northern Sea Route, the Venta is carrying a cargo of electronics put aboard at Busan in South Korea and frozen fish loaded at the Russian port of Vladivostok. The vessel is scheduled to stop at Bremerhaven, Germany, then terminate in Russia at St. Petersburg in late September.

This marks the beginning of a modern-day voyage of discovery that could hearken a transformation for global shipping and the Arctic environment.

The new route – pirate free

Maritime transit is now possible between July and October because of the rapid (and, to many, deeply unsettling) retreat of Arctic sea ice due to profound climate change, a trend that is amplified at the North and South poles.

Russia, China and commercial shipping interests are among those with high hopes that the Northern Sea Route could become a melt-season alternative to Egypt’s Suez Canal, trim weeks off transit times and slash fuel costs for vessels shuttling between ports in Europe and Asia – and the Americas.

The Russian company Rosatom, which runs the largest nuclear-powered ice-breaking fleet in the world, boasts that the route has “no queues and no pirates,” an allusion to the threat posed by African buccaneers in the Gulf of Aden in recent years.

Ice-free summers in the Arctic

Time-lapse satellite images show sea ice swirling in clockwise gyre around the North Pole, spreading in the winter and shrinking in the summer, year after year. It is plainly discernible that the extent of summer ice has been shrinking – by 13.4 percent a decade, according to NASA.

Looking forward in time, Walt Meier, a senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado, said climate models suggest ice-free summers in the Arctic sometime between 2050 and 2070, with some scenarios forecasting more rapid change, as soon as 2030.

The Northern Sea Route, because of its location along the shallow seas of Siberia, is free of ice earlier and stays free longer than other areas of the Arctic. Much of the route passes through waters along Russia’s exclusive economic zone, and vessels seeking passage must apply for permits and permissions from Russia’s Northern Sea Route Administration. The Russians also charge fees for navigation and ice-breaking assistance.

Time is money

But the route’s key selling point is time. A ship sailing from South Korea to Germany via South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope would take on average 46 days, according to The same voyage via the Suez Canal would be 34 days. The trip via the Northern Sea Route: 23 days.

The Chinese shipping company COSCO is on track to complete a dozen transits this year in freighters.

Hundreds of smaller ships are already out there. A few clicks on show oil tankers, cargo ships, research vessels. Even a few cruise ships are plying the waters this summer.

Another test ride

It is maritime container traffic, though, along with fossil-fuel tankers, that are the heart and lungs of the global economy. And this is a big moment for both in the Arctic.

The next test is how a modern ice-class, 3,600-container ship such as the Venta Maersk fares.

Russia shipped the first load of liquefied natural gas from its new, $27 billion Yamal production facility above the Arctic Circle to China’s port of Rudong in July, completing the inaugural trip in 19 days at sea – 16 fewer days than via the Suez Canal. Gas shipments from Yamal to Europe became routine earlier this year.

Travel at your own risk

The shipping line stresses that this is a “one-off sea trial,” an exploratory voyage to look and learn and gather scientific data, Maersk spokesperson Janina von Spalding said.

There are Russian pilots aboard to help navigate past the hazards of floating ice. First-year ice is usually two or three feet thick, but in some years, driven by wind and current, young and old ice piles up alongside the Russian islands in ridges 14-feet high.

Four Russian nuclear-powered icebreakers are routinely deployed to smash through the ice and lead convoys of ships in the fall, winter and spring months.

Dangers beyond content

Land and sea animals may be exposed to new threats, not only by increased shipping, but by the oil, gas and mineral extraction along the Siberian coastline, which harbors a trove of untapped reserves.

Environmentalists are not so worried about a ship running down a polar bear, but they are fearful of possible spills as tankers laden with oil and gas operate in extreme conditions, especially in winter.

Cold-water spills, one of which involved the Exxon Valdez in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989, take decades to clean and disperse.

In addition to the development of ports, the use of heavy fuels and increased pollution cause concern – especially the “black carbon” emitted by ships and industry. The sooty pollution, when spread across the ice, speeds its melting, as dark surfaces absorb rather than reflect the sun’s heat.

Short term route

Laurence C. Smith, a professor of geography at the University of California in Los Angeles, states that there would be more resource exploitation if ship transit continues in this region.

Also, he has modeled future maritime traffic scenarios in the Arctic, and said that the Northern Sea Route, in the short-term, may be a niche market.

But he wonders: “Imagine a time in the not-so-distant future when ice ceases to be the limiting factor.”

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Source: Washington Post


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