New climate research by the University of California at Los Angeles has confirmed that by mid-century it will be possible to navigate the Arctic Ocean with ease. Geography Professor Laurence C. Smith, one of the study's co-authors, indicates that the thinning Arctic ice sheet will be readily breached by icebreakers and a straight route over the North Pole will be possible.
The shipping lanes that will open up in previously inaccessible areas will create a route that is 20% shorter than today's highly trafficked path along the coast of Russia and will yield great benefits to shippers. It is also excellent news for global shippers who wish to use this as an alternative passage rather than moving through the Panama Canal, the Suez Canal or the Strait of Malacca.
The routes connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans will become totally viable for Polar Class 6 vessels (those with reinforced hulls) and even for Type A ships without the strengthening now required to resist ice damage. The Northwest Passage travels along the northern coast of North America. It is now only navigable one out of every seven years. By mid-century the climate study predicts that sea ice will melt by September making the Arctic Ocean navigable at least every other year.
Even in the past two years, ice melt has been observed to the extent that most vessels with icebreaker escorts were able to cross the northern routes. There are four major Arctic shipping routes – the new North Pole route from Rotterdam to the Bering Strait; the Arctic Bridge linking Churchill (Canada) to Murmansk in Russia (this is currently the most reliable route); the Northern Sea Route (also called the Northeast Sea Passage) along the coast of Russia; the Northwest Passage from St. John (Canada) to the Bering Strait. Forty-six vessels crossed during the summer of 2012.
In December, 2013, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that global warming is dramatically changing the Arctic Ice Shield. At the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco, it was noted that the Arctic is now considered to have a new climate normal.
Snow cover is at record low levels and summer sea ice continues to reach new lows. In 2013, sea ice was at its lowest level in three decades, with the seven lowest levels reached during the last seven years. Average temperatures are 3.6 degrees higher than 75 years ago and the growing season is a month longer than in 1982.
In January, 2013, Port Finance International reported that Norwegian tanker operator, Stolt-Nielsen will build the first major ice-free port for ships sailing the Northern Sea Route. A long-term lease from Finnmark, the regional authority, will allow Norterminal to be built for the storage and export of oil and gas. The new Barents Sea port will be located along the Gamneset coastline in the Kors Fjord, close to the border of Russia and Norway.
The port will be able to handle VLCC tankers, according to owner Stolt-Nielsen, and be a great improvement over the temporary infrastructure now used. New oilfield development in the Barents Sea and the opening of ice-free shipping through the Northern Sea passage were the impetus for the planning of the new port. Construction will begin in 2014 at a cost of €250 million (US $341.8 million) and completion is anticipated for 2017. Funding sources have not been announced. Norterminal is planned to handle 150-300 tankers and 10 million tons of crude oil annually. Markets will be in the Far-East.
With the opening of shipping opportunities across the top of the world, we are sure to see even more activity in the Arctic. The Maritime Executive notes, however, that currently the Northern Sea Route still has its challenges.
Coal, oil and gas carrying vessels have made it through, but insurance costs are high, icebergs prevalent, and environmental restrictions heavy. AIS ship tracking has shown that deviation from original routes is often necessary due to ice considerations. At present there are only four powerful icebreakers covering the Northern Sea Route and the route is only open for about four months of the year.
The financial advantages of these new routes include fuel savings, time savings, and the ability to more quickly respond to market demand. Some examples:
Even with the need for the use of icebreakers, the routes can save thousands of dollars: Last September, the bulk carrier Nordic Orion hauled coal from Vancouver to Finland – the first major commercial vessel to travel the Northwest Passage. It cut 1,000 miles off its usual path (through the Panama Canal) and saved $80,000 in fuel costs.
In late August and September this year, Vitol shipped Korean diesel and gasoil in two 90,000 ton ice-class tankers to Europe over the Northern Sea Route. By mid-October, ship tracking data from PortVision and sattellite AIS has shown them in the North Sea and in the Laptev Sea. Previously these shipments would have been sent through the Suez Canal and the trip would take 40 days. Although the cost of icebreakers is high (as much as $400,000), the quicker shipping time (as little as 22 days) can take advantage of arbitrage movements on the trading floor.
Last November, the Ob River LNG tanker left Hammerfest in Norway, the first to carry liquefied natural gas, as reported by the Economist in the September 1, 2012 issue. Its destination was Japan, a country that cannot meet its energy needs due to the Fukishima nuclear disaster.