Going Through, Not Around

Aug. 29, 2017

Rising temperatures are having some collateral benefits for the shipping industry, or at least for one Russian shipping company. The Sovcomflot ship Christophe de Margerie has just traversed the Northern Sea Route from Norway to South Korea without an icebreaker to accompany it—a first for a ship on that route.

The 300-foot ship has a steel-reinforced hull and is designed to make its way through ice slightly more than 2 meters thick. It’s the first of its kind, but the company is planning an eventual fleet of 15 of them.

Carrying liquid natural gas, the ship made the crossing in a record-setting six and a half days. In the past, the route was open for about four months a year, and ships required the expensive icebreakers to precede them. The company expects to use the route, without the icebreakers, year-round from here on out. The alternative to the northern route is for ships to pass through the Suez Canal, which increases travel time by about 30%.

It’s not just the design of the ship, but also the condition of the sea, that allows the change. The amount of Arctic ice has been declining for three decades, and this year marks the third straight record low amount of ice.

The shipping company is banking on the trend continuing. “There is an assumption that the ice is not going to thicken dramatically for the economic life of these vessels, which could be over 30 years,” a spokesman says in this BBC article.

Environmental groups are objecting, saying that the ships use heavier and potentially dirtier, black-carbon-producing fuel that could increase the rate at which the ice melts—not necessarily a bad thing, from the shipping company’s point of view—and citing the risk of accidents and spills.

About the Author

Janice Kaspersen

Janice Kaspersen is the former editor of Erosion Control and Stormwater magazines.