Cargo ships to test shorter route through Arctic opened by melting ice

Maersk, the world’s largest shipping line, will soon test the waters of the Arctic for shorter routes, due to warmer temperatures that have opened up the Northern Sea Route.

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The Denmark-based company will soon send a container ship to explore the waters along Russia’s north coast, a test analysts say could be a turning point for the shipping industry.

As the Earth has warmed during the last decade, Arctic routes have been eyed by companies with hopes of cutting expensive travel times. During the summer months, cargos of oil and gas regularly make the journey.

The National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Colorado said this winter’s sea ice cover was less than a third of what it was five years ago.

Maersk will test the waters on or around Sept. 1 with Venta Maersk, a new ice-class 42,000 ton ship with a 3,600 container capacity that can trudge through 3 feet of ice.

Paul Bingham, economist with the Economical Development Research group, said the Venta Maersk is strong enough to take on the route about three months of the year.

Maersk told NPR it does not see the Northern Sea Route as an alternative to usual routes, but rather a trial to explore and collect data that can open future opportunities and cut about two weeks from the Asia-to-Europe route.

Malte Humpert, senior fellow of think tank Arctic Institute, said the shift is a sequential development that could lead to consequences.

“The ice is melting and more things are becoming possible in the Arctic, and with that, of course, … comes enhanced risk for the environment,” Humpert said.

Sune Scheller of Greenpeace Nordic said taking the route is cheaper, but more harmful to the environment.

“It’s more polluting, air quality-wise. It adds to particulate matter — black carbon, as it’s known — which rests on white surfaces like ice and snow and absorbs heat instead of reflecting it, which contributes to climate change,” Scheller said.

“If these ships were to have an accident then heavy fuel oil in the marine environment is bad. It’s even worse in an Arctic environment. The cold water temperatures slow or halt the natural breakdown of the oil. So it remains in marine environments for a much longer period of time.”

By Susan McFarland