Fears for Arctic ecosystem as shipping milestone reached

A Norwegian ship has made the first-ever unassisted winter crossing of the Northern Sea Route. The Eduard Toll knocked around 3,000 nautical miles off its journey from South Korea to France via northern Russia without needing to be accompanied by an icebreaker. T&E says this journey was only possible due to climate change and will lead to further damage to the fragile Arctic ecosystem.

Global warming has led to the thinning of polar ice, to the point where increasing numbers of ships are using the Arctic shipping routes (mainly the Northwest Passage north of Canada and the Northeast Passage north of Russia that includes the Northern Sea Route). But these passages are generally only open in summer, unless a ship is accompanied by an ice breaker. Shipping companies are increasingly investing in vessels that can break through thin ice, but their voyages are generally limited to the summer months.

Hence the historic – if also ominous – milestone of a ship using the Northeast Passage in winter without an icebreaker. The Eduard Toll is a new ship commissioned by Teekay, a Norwegian shipowner specialising in transporting oil and gas, which sailed from Korea to the Yamal peninsula in northern Russia where Teekay has a liquefied natural gas installation, and then to Montoir in France to deliver a consignment of LNG.

Teekay says the ship broke ice 1.8 metres thick at speeds of five knots, and arrived at the Yamal terminal ahead of schedule.

The Northeast Passage offers considerable savings to shipowners compared with the traditional east-west routes of sailing round the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa and through the Suez Canal in the eastern Mediterranean. A journey from Busan in South Korea to Rotterdam in the Netherlands is 10,744 nautical miles (approximately 19,370km) via Suez and 14,084 (25,400km) via South Africa, but just 7,667 (13,820km) via the Northeast Passage.

But the Arctic routes are only navigable because of climate change, and T&E has warned for several years that this development will only hasten further climate change unless important safeguards are enacted. T&E’s shipping officer Faig Abbasov said: ‘This journey and others like it will lead to more black carbon deposits on ice and snow, which in turn will contribute to further climate change. Dirty heavy fuel oil spills, on the other hand, risk irreparably damaging the environment in a unique and very sensitive ecosystem.’

Greenpeace said: ‘The Arctic has already exceeded the Paris agreement’s aspiration of limiting warming to 1.5°C, and the agreed target of 2°C. So now, ironically, we can deliver fossil fuels more quickly. It’s like a heavy smoker using his tracheotomy to smoke two cigarettes at once.’

In 2012 T&E published a report Troubled waters: How to protect the Arctic from the growing impact of shipping. It warned that unless action is taken, the increase in human activities in the Arctic will cause serious ecological damage. It recommended that the shipping community recognise the potentially devastating effects of black carbon; that heavy fuel oil is the dirtiest fuel of any transport sector and should be banned; and that non ice-class vessels must be subject to a minimum hull strength to prevent accidents and spills that could have horrendous ecological consequences.

Earlier this month, the International Maritime Organisation’s pollution prevention and response sub-committee agreed to consider controlling black carbon emissions from ships to reduce their impact on the Arctic. Black carbon, which accounts for an estimated 7-21% of shipping’s global climate impact, accelerates the melting of polar ice. A switch from heavy fuel oil to higher-quality shipping fuels alone could reduce black carbon by about a third.