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Plans for development of Northern Sea Route on ice



Perhaps the bitterest irony to emerge from the issue of global warming is that the melted ice in the polar regions allows for new fossil fuel exploration and a wider range of shipping routes. 

The Northern Sea Route in the Arctic runs along the Russian Arctic coast from Murmansk, along Siberia, to the Bering Strait and the Far East.  It is currently only passable for around a few months of the year, but as global average temperatures rise, this window is only set to increase.

But global warming will not make it commercially viable for 15 to 20 years, according to the head of the world’s biggest container line.

Nils Andersen, chief executive of Danish company AP Møller-Maersk, which carries 15% of all seaborne freight, rejected suggestions that the route could be as important to trade as the Suez Canal.

“The way global warming is going, of course there is the opportunity in a very far, very distant future that the northern sea route will open up and it will be a major shipping route”, Andersen told the Financial Times.

“But it will definitely not be within the next 15 to 20 years in our opinion, so it’s far too early to start constructing vessels for it.”

Making the journey between Asia and some European ports this way can cut travel times by a third, but due to seasonal changes in ice cover, the journey is hazardous and expensive and can currently only be made a few months each year.

“The problem is just that you have to have icebreakers, you have to be very sure that you hit the right window during the year so you don’t run into icebergs, and things like that,” Anderson said. 

Other problems include obtaining insurance for the carriers and the potential difficulties of rescuing a troubled ship in the remote Arctic.

However, such obstacles have not put off everyone. In September, the Chinese-flagged Yong Sheng container ship travelled through the northern route to Rotterdam from Dalian. The trip took 34 days, 11 days shorter than it would have via the Suez Canal.

In 2011, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the Northern Sea Route would become “one of the key trade routes of international significance and scale, which will be able to compete with traditional international corridors”.

In particular, Russia is keen to use the route to market its planned oil and gas production in the region. It is estimated that the Yamal Peninsula in north-west Siberia, bordered by the Kara Sea, holds natural gas reserves of 55 trillion cubic meters, making it the biggest reserves in Russia.

There are plans to develop significant liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects in the peninsula, and the Russian government estimates that in 2030, 85m tonnes of mostly hydrocarbons will be transported through the northern sea route.

In a meeting with Russian officials in September, Putin said that in 2013, 1.5m tonnes of traffic had been carried across the Northern Sea Route. He estimated that by 2015, this figure will reach 4m tonnes.

He said, “Without any undue exaggeration, the industrial and infrastructural development of the Yamal Peninsula holds national importance,” adding that the project must be in strict compliance with environmental standards.

However, this is not an area where Russia have a great track record. Russian government has come in for heavy criticism from environmentalists over its plans for the Arctic region. Twenty-eight Greenpeace activists and two journalists are currently being held in Murmansk on charges of piracy, after attempting to board a Russian oil rig in the Pechora Sea.

Further reading:

All 30 Greenpeace Arctic activists charged with piracy in Russia

Greenpeace activists ‘held at gun point’ in Russian Arctic

Arctic sea ice recovers from 2012 record low, but long-term melting trend continues

Arctic could be ‘ice-free’ by 2054, say scientists

Shrinking Arctic will create shipping bonanza in region