Arctic Shortcut a Reality and Likely to Speed Warming and Melting

As the New York Times reported yesterday, two German ships accompanied by Russian icebreakers are poised to complete the first commercial transit from Asia to the West. This is welcome news for shipping companies, who are looking to save fuel and time between Europe and Asia. Unfortunately, this shortcut is likely to accelerate warming and melting in the Arctic unless measures are put in place to reduce ship emissions, which deposit black carbon (“soot”) directly into the region where it can do the most damage.

A German ship, following a Russian icebreaker, is about to complete a shipment from Asia to Europe via Arctic waters. [Credit: Beluga Group]“We are all very proud and delighted to be the first western shipping company which has successfully transited the legendary Northeast-Passage and delivered the sensitive cargo safely through this extraordinarily demanding sea area”, said Niels Stolberg, President and CEO of Beluga Shipping when the two 12,700 ton ships docked in Siberia on Monday. Stolberg added that the Beluga group did not see this as an experiment but the beginning of opening the route to outside traffic. He said his company already had new contracts for taking 1,000 tons of goods from Asia to Siberia next summer. The vessels are scheduled to complete their journey at the Dutch port of Rotterdam.

The route took the two ships through Russian waters, a fact that country is hoping to capitalize on in the future. Although the path is only accessible for only a few weeks of the year, even with icebreakers, the Russians are hoping that the chance to save days to weeks in travel will allow the summer passage to eventually rival the Suez Canal. Nikolai A. Monko, the head of the Northern Sea Route Administration in the Russian Transport Ministry, said the policy now was to promote the route. The ministry, he said, is considering lowering the flat fee charged for icebreaker escort and rescue if needed.


Shipping is expected to increase as the ice melts further. The Fourth Assessment Report of the International Panel on Climate change (IPCC) includes a study that predicts that the Northern Sea Route may have up to 125 days/year with less than 75% ice cover  by 2050. A draft report* co-authored by the EPA cites shipping as one of the growing sources of black carbon to the Arctic. However, shipping need not spell doom for the region. Ways to reduce BC emissions from shipping include: vessel speed limits (slower vessels run more efficiently, producing less BC), modifications to vessel and propeller design, and use of wind power technologies such as sails and kites to reduce fuel consumption. This issue is likely to be among those taken up by the task force established recently by the  Arctic Council to recommend immediate actions that can be taken to reduce black carbon emissions.

For more about BC and the Arctic, check out this post from last month: The Northwest Passage: A Shortcut to Greater Arctic Warming.

* Sarofim, M. et al., 2009. Current Policies, Emission Trends and Mitigation Options for Black Carbon in the Arctic Region, Draft White Paper by an Ad Hoc Working Group, 28 April 2009.

Disclaimer: I am one of the co-authors of this report.


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