Navigation through Northern Sea Route rises with ice melt

Featured - August 22nd, 2012

Development is fast on the heels of global warming as the receding Arctic ice paves the way for international trade.

The Northern Sea Route, which traverses the Arctic Circle, reduces the distance between Europe and East Asia by 40%. According to Norway-based Tschudi Shipping Co., vessels use 1,000 tons less fuel and the journey costs $650,000 less than the Suez Canal route. Navigation in the Russian-controlled shipping lane increased from 4 ships in 2010 to 34 last year. The figures are meager compared to the Suez Canal route with 17,799 trips. Still, the jump in the number of vessels using the Northern Sea Route indicates a change of tide.

Ports in the Arctic Circle grew restless with activity, prompting talks to develop the area. Russia, which monopolizes access and ice-breaker ‘escorts’ that tow vessels through the ice, plans to compete with shipbuilding leaders – South Korea and Japan – by constructing large ice-resistant tankers by 2018. It also plans to build a dry dock in a joint venture with South Korean company Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering Co. Gas exploration companies are also looking to the Arctic region which is believed to hold 30% of the Earth’s undiscovered natural gas reserves.

Japan is considering the Arctic route to improve shipping navigation, The Nikkei reports. Japanese shipping companies claimed that the efficient route could reduce carbon emissions.

The expanding route faces contention from some shipping companies and environmentalists. The Russian ice-breaker escort costs $400,000 which is more than the $250,000 toll at the Suez Canal. Environmentalists claimed that developing the area could risk oil spills from ships which will be harder to cleanup. European environmental group The Bellona Foundation says the region is “a more sensitive environment than regular places … We should abstain from developing the Arctic,” project coordinator Igor Kudrik told the Asahi Shimbun.