Opening of Arctic Waters to Marine Shipping?

Image by Jonathan Percy, unSplash

Danish Cargo ship, Venta Maersk, will be arriving in St Petersbrug towards the end of this week (25 September 2018), having departed Vladivostok and travelled across the top of Russia.

“So what?” you may ask.  The thing is, this ship travelled unaided through the Arctic’s Northern Sea Route, a feat which just a few years ago, would have been impossible without the assistance of nuclear-powered ice breakers.

With the Arctic warming faster than any other region on the earth, the ice in the Northern Sea Route has become thinner, sparser, and more fractured than ever before.

While this is a “trial passage” and it is not expected that this will become a commercially viable route in the near future, it is an important milestone and an indication of the very real impact of climate change.

“The fact that you can now ship with a container ship through the Arctic along the Northern Sea Route, when even just 10 years ago that was not even remotely possible, shows how quickly and how dramatically climate change is affecting the region."

— Malte Humpert, Arctic Institute

This not only speaks to climate change, but to the environmental impact of such voyages through the ice. Commercial ships use heavy fuel oil, emitting soot and pollutants which further speed the melting of the arctic ice.

On 13 April 2018, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) agreed to climate targets for the sector, as part of its first comprehensive greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) reduction strategy. One of the targets is the ban of heavy fuel oil in the Arctic, but an impact assessment will be conducted first to ensure a ban does not place an unnecessary burden on Arctic communities.

The threat to marine life is also a concern. A recent report, supported by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) suggests that noise from shipping traffic is a threat to the Arctic's marine mammals, decreasing their ability to find food, orient themselves and communicate underwater.

Leaders of native Arctic communities have come forward in the past to stress the importance of protecting the sensitive waters.

Marine advocate Austin Ahmasuk calls for improved dialogue with the native communities and their leaders stressing that is the best way forward.


Further reading:

Climate change is opening a new era in Arctic shipping

Global Shipping Sector Steps Up, Sets Climate Targets 

Arctic indiginous leaders speak up about the dangers of increased shipping