Sometime earlier this week a cargo ship passed through the Northwest Passage into Baffin Bay, along Greenland’s southwestern coast, making it the first bulk carrier ever to make the voyage. This journey was completed by the Nordic Orion, a 225-meter, ice-strengthened vessel loaded with coal in Vancouver, British Columbia and headed for Finland.
Long eyed as a commercial route, the Northwest Passage is a channel of waterways through the Arctic Ocean along the northern coast of North America connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans — a shortcut from Europe to Asia through the Canadian Arctic. The Nordic Orion didn’t exactly blaze the trail itself. Smaller vessels have been navigating the channel for about a hundred years, but climate change — which has reduced Arctic pack ice that prevented regular marine shipping for most of the year and made waterways hard to navigate — has made things easier.
Last year Arctic sea ice reached an all-time low of 1.32 million square miles. While it rose slightly this year to 1.97 million square miles, according to the University of Colorado Boulder’s National Snow and Ice Data Center, that is still the sixth lowest on record, and reinforces the long-term downward trend.
“We had a bit of a recovery this year, but it’s not going to last,” said NSIDC Director Mark Serreze.
The graph shows Arctic sea ice extent as of September 19, 2013, along with daily ice extent data for five previous years. 2013 is shown in blue, 2012 in green, 2011 in orange, 2010 in pink, 2009 in navy, and 2008 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 average is in dark gray.
CREDIT: National Snow and Ice Data Center
This clearing of ice has opened up certain opportunities for the shipping industry. The Nordic Orion will cut about four days of time from its journey, or nearly 1,500 nautical miles, compared to its usual route through the Panama Canal. It was also able to carry about 25 percent more coal since it didn’t have to account for the shallow Panama Canal crossing.
But in addition to allowing more methods to get coal around the world to be burned while emitting CO2, trips like these also signal complex logistical and legal battles, as discussions about Arctic sovereignty and infrastructure become more than hypothetical scenarios.
Apparently there is not a single port along the Northwest Passage where a ship could seek help in the case of a serious storm or mechanical issue.
And there are of course environmental risks. While a coal spill might not cause as much immediate damage as an oil spill, the ships fuel certainly would. For example in 2004, a cargo ship that lost power during a storm off Alaska’s Aleutian Islands was blown aground. Most of the 442,000 gallons of various fuels aboard leaked into the waters of the surrounding Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, almost none of which was recovered due to in large part to the absence of clean-up equipment and personnel.
Legally, Canada claims sovereignty over the Northwest Passage region and hopes to assert control over commercial traffic. However the U.S. and the E.U. have disputed this claim, arguing the the Northwest Passage represents international waters, which allows the right of transit passage, according to a 2006 paper on Arctic sovereignty prepared for the Parliament of Canada.
“The Canadian government needs to take a firm stand on shipping via the Northwest passage in order to safeguard the environment and to enforce Canada’s sovereignty,” James Given, president of the Seafarers’ International Union of Canada, recently said in an e-mail.
The economics are not quite there yet either. Edward Coll, the Newport, R.I.-based CEO of Bulk Partners, the holding company that owns Nordic Orion, told The Wall Street Journal that without the support of the Canadian government they could not have, and would not have, made the passage. This is because the government covers the roughly $50,000-a-day cost for an ice-breaking escort for any ship traveling north of the 60th parallel.
While it’s cold, treacherous and unpredictable, the northern route holds enormous potential savings for international shippers.
CREDIT: Graphic News, The Wall Street Journal
On the other side of the Arctic Ocean, along the Northern Sea Route, or Northeast Passage, Russia is further along in ambitions to capitalize on climate change-induced sea openings. Russia has dozens of powerful icebreakers compared to Canada’s Coast Guard icebreakers, which are growing old and are too small for convoy duty. Russia also has far more bases for search and rescue purposes along the route.
This month a Chinese vessel became the first container-transporting vessel to sail through the Northeast Passage, shaving two weeks off a regular journey that takes the vessel south and through the Suez Canal. While other large ships have sailed the route, this trip marked the first time the world’s biggest exporter, China, utilized disappearing ice to reach its biggest market, the E.U.
Regarding the voyage, Gary Li, a senior maritime analyst with IHS in Beijing said, “It’s early days. The Northern Sea Route probably needs another 20 or 30 years of climate change to make it fully viable. And even then, it’s got so many constraints.”
Summer sea ice in the Arctic will disappear sometime this century according to scientific estimates. Already ice has been disappearing at about 13 percent every 10 years for the last few decades. This is likely to accelerate as climate change speeds up due to greater and greater quantities of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere due to increased production and consumption of products made for and shipped around a global economy.