All eyes on the Arctic

5 min read
04 Apr 2019
Anna Gustafsson

Global warming is changing the future of Arctic maritime. While rapidly melting ice caps have led to the opening of new trade routes, there is still one, big concern - protecting the area’s sensitive environment.

The year is 1878. Heavy fog has set over the Arctic Ocean allowing visibility of only a few metres ahead. Huge ice rafts thump against the sides of the sailing ship SS Vega as it forges ahead on an epic voyage. Famed Finnish explorer Nils Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld is on board the Vega and is attempting to circumnavigate Eurasia by sailing through the icy Northeast Passage, a shipping route that lies along the Arctic Ocean coasts of Norway and Russia.

After a troubled start, including spending a year stuck in the ice, the Vega Expedition finally makes maritime history by successfully crossing the Northeast passage and circumnavigating Eurasia. Jump forward 140 years and this arctic shipping route is still a hot topic for discussion, with the governments and fleet owners exploring opportunities in the region.

The Northeast Passage

This interest is driven by the possibility of faster movement of ships. For instance, if you wish to travel by sea from Northern Europe to Shanghai, the Northeast route is about 3,000 nautical miles shorter than going via the Suez Canal. Until recently, the Northeast passage used to be free of ice and navigable only for a few months of a year. However, the effects of climate change are having an impact and the route is now open from July to November.

An increasing number of cargo vessels are using the route to reduce their travel time. And interest in developing the region is rising. Russia, as per their draft budget for 2019–2021, plans to invest over EUR 500 million in the coming years to improve infrastructure along the Northeast Passage. The route is now part of China’s ambitious Polar Silk Road plan. Commercial activity here is being encouraged and Chinese state-owned Cosco has been sending more cargo ships to Europe using this option. European countries are following suit too with the Danish Maersk group sending its first container ship, Venta Maersk, to travel through the region, this summer.

“As the route is much shorter, it cuts down the fuel consumption, resulting in fewer emissions,” points out Teus van Beek, general manager of market innovation at Wärtsilä.

Exploring new opportunities

The opening of the Northern Route also means better access to regional resources. Ulla Lainio, director of Cleantech Ecosystems at Business Finland has regular meetings with representatives of the Russian shipping and mining industries. She cites the massive LNG project at the Yamal peninsula in Siberia as one example.

“The opening of the Northern Route has made it possible to export LNG year-round from Russia to both Asia and Europe. To meet the increased activity, Russia has commissioned 15 vessels to be built, with an option of another 15, in South Korea, with an international ownership,” says Lainio. She adds that Russian experts estimate exports of LNG from Yamal to continue increasing until 2042, and the shipping of minerals and coal to grow similarly.

However, as the focus of world trade shifts and more and more ships starts using this passage, it is bound to have an impact on the region’s sensitive ecosystem. And that is the quandary now facing the world. How do we operate in this region in an efficient and sustainable manner?


On thin ice

The shrinking of the icecaps in the Arctic zone has been well documented and the numbers are startling. Ice coverage in the Arctic Sea was over ten million square kilometres in 1970. Today, that number has reduced to about four million square kilometres. And that process is speeding up. Last winter, ice coverage was less than a third of what it was just five years ago. Various studies indicate that the ice cover might disappear by the end of the century.

In an attempt to control the environmental risks due to increased traffic in the Arctic Sea, 170 members of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) have signed the Polar Code, which came into force in 2017. However, it still does not prohibit the use of heavy fuel oil in the Arctic Sea or the discharge of grey water. A potential spill of heavy fuel oil and the emission of black carbon are still huge threats to the environment of the Arctic.

“It is a fact that due to climate change, the economic activity in the area will keep increasing. But to ensure sustainable and responsible development, we strongly support stable and predictable regulatory frameworks at the Arctic Economic Council (AEC). Our view point is that these regulatory frameworks should be as high as possible, and that they should be common to all stakeholders, no matter where they come from,” emphasises Anu Fredrikson, Director of the Arctic Economic Council Secretariat, as she believes stable and predictable regulation is essential for sustainable, commercial use of the Arctic area.

A case for sustainable shipping

Mark Keneford, general manager of marine solutions - sales at Wärtsilä says clearer regulation and cleaner technology is critical to make this work. “We work with ship owners to help them recognise that there are already technologies available to allow them to operate responsibly, reduce emissions, and keep safe in the Arctic Sea,” he explains. “If tougher regulations were implemented, owners could make the switch easily as the necessary technologies already exist.”

“We, at Wärtsilä, can be leaders in showcasing a sustainable operation model both business-wise and environmentally. We can look for the combination that is both clean and robust,” adds van Beek.

The Arctic represents a second chance. One where humanity can learn from its mistakes and start anew. Sustainable development is the need of the hour here.

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