What has become clear in the last few years is that melting sea ice leads to a rapid growth in shipping activities. In September 2012, for the first time since satellite measurements began, the area covered by Arctic sea ice dropped to around half the average ice area between 1979 and 2010. Trans-polar shipping activities are now reporting dramatic double-digit growth figures – in 2012, around 1.26 million tonnes of cargo were transported via the Northern Sea Route (NSR), a 53% increase over 2011.
The race to the Arctic is often justified by assumptions, such as that it would cut the journey time between Asia and Europe by up to 40%, or that it would be a safer route given the threats that piracy poses in the Suez Canal. These statements have to be handled with care. Given the lower vessels speed necessitated by Arctic conditions, a journey on the Northern Sea Route could actually be longer than through the Suez Canal. Dangers in the High North are also of a different nature: there may be less piracy in the Arctic, but navigation charts of Arctic waters are still imprecise, the ‘ice-free’ waters in the summer months often have ice in them, and despite relatively low levels of shipping, there were nearly 300 accidents in the Arctic between 1995-2004.
Dealing with these issues is essentially the job of ship-owners and operators. But on top of these considerations, we also need to recognise very clearly that Arctic sea routes are exceptional: the Arctic eco-system is particularly fragile and the environmental implications of increased shipping activities are profound.
One of the key environmental problems that increased shipping in the Arctic causes is that ships deposit black carbon virtually directly on the ice. In remote regions such as polar waters, which have otherwise low atmospheric concentrations of black carbon, increased ship activities could lead to a vicious circle whereby Arctic melting leads to the opening of new sea routes, and use of these sea routes will in turn increase emissions of black carbon. This will greatly accelerate the pace of Arctic melting. The increase in shipping activities is likely to happen in sectors using predominantly heavy fuel oil (tankers, containers, etc) which leads to high emissions of black carbon, now thought to be the second most potent greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide.
And emissions to air are not the only environmental concern: legally permissible or accidental discharges of oil, sewage and chemicals, as well as underwater noise disturbances and introduction of invasive species will all have a significant impact and knock-on effects.
The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) is currently developing an International code for ships operating in the Arctic and Antarctic waters: the Polar Code. It was always a good idea, but with the expected increase in Arctic shipping activities, it has now become vital. Traffic levels are currently still manageable, so a precautionary approach should be adopted before too many ships are affected. But for that to happen, the IMO must be bold and make rapid decisions on strong safety and environmental regulations for ships sailing in Arctic waters.
Given the imperative need to ensure the highest level of environmental protection in the Arctic, you would think that the IMO would have identified regulating black carbon emissions and banning heavy fuel oil – the dirtiest fuel currently used in the transport sector – as priorities. But it hasn’t, and in a recent meeting, the IMO decided to further delay the consideration of these issues in the context of the Polar Code. Regulators must stop procrastinating: the Arctic sea routes exist because of global warming – they must not be allowed to make the global situation even worse.