Shipping giant announces trial run of Arctic sea route

Danish shipping line Maersk will trial a voyage through the Arctic northern route for the first time. [Sheila Fitzgerald / Shutterstock]

Danish shipping company Maersk will this week send for the first time one of its ships along the Northern Sea Route, an Arctic shipping lane along Russia’s northern coastline that is set to become more important as climate change makes it more viable.

Maersk Line, the world’s biggest seaborne freight carrier, will send one of its new 3,600-container ice-class ships from China to northern Europe via the Arctic, in what the company is calling “a trial passage”.

The Venta Maersk vessel is the fourth in a series of seven ice-class ships that will operate in the North Sea and Baltic Sea, and its Arctic expedition will be a one-time deal to “collect scientific data”. According to a statement by Maersk, the Danish shipper does not currently see “the Northern Sea Route as an alternative to our usual routes”.

“We plan new services according to our customers’ demand, trading patterns and population centres,” the statement added. The ship is expected to begin the east-west voyage on 1 September, after passing through the Bering Strait.

Long hailed as a potential alternative to the southern route through the Suez Canal, the Arctic route has the potential to cut up to two weeks off the total voyage time, according to research by the Financial Times.

But sea ice makes the route only viable three months of the year, so shipping lines have so far stuck to the southern route, as there are also more markets on the route between Europe and the Far East.

The route also currently needs expensive ice-class ships, like the Venta Maersk, which are heavily armoured to protect against icebergs or accompanying nuclear-powered ice-breaking ships in order to make the trip.

However, the chances of the route becoming a genuine option for the world’s shipping industry, which still carries about 90% of global trade, are increasing because of climate change and melting ice in the Arctic.

This week, the oldest and thickest sea ice in the northern region began to break up for the first time in recorded history, opening up waters north of Greenland that are normally frozen even in the summer.

Scientists called the development “scary”, as that ice was previously thought to be extremely resilient, and warned that the break-up was due to warm winds hitting the area.

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Indeed, Maersk is not the only one looking to exploit what could be a new trade route in the coming years, as China and Russia have already sent vessels through the Arctic without ice-breaking escorts.

Russian gas company Novatek has already transported its fuels using specially-built tankers this year, while a Chinese state-owned firm sent a cargo ship last autumn into a Russian port.

Heavy fuel burden

Maersk’s first foray into the frozen north may just be a trial run but green group the Clean Arctic Alliance has already urged the company to reveal what kind of fuel the Venta Maersk will use during its trip.

The Alliance called on Maersk not to use “the world’s dirtiest fuel-heavy fuel oil (HFO) – to power ships in the Arctic”.

According to the group, HFO increases the chances of oil spills and exacerbates the effects of climate change due to the release of black carbon emissions.

“By taking the lead in the Arctic, Maersk could lead a vanguard of companies shipping commercial goods that move towards clean and renewable forms of propulsion for shipping worldwide,” said the Alliance’s Sian Prior in a statement.

The International Maritime Organisation is considering a ban on HFO and in April 2018 tasked a committee to look into the feasibility and impact of a potential moratorium on using the fuel within the Arctic Circle. The committee will meet again early next year.

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