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Global warming expected to open up a shorter shipping lane between Asia and Europe

A shortcut through the Arctic?

The Northeast Passage is the shortest maritime route from Europe to Asia. Its only drawback is that it is icebound and impassable for about half the year. Global warming is changing this by opening up new and in some cases unexpected possibilities for freight shipping. Find out more about one of the most remote, and probably one of the coldest, nautical routes in the world.

The increasing use of this hitherto rather neglected route offers numerous opportunities for commercial shipping. Known internationally as the Northern Sea Route, the passage is believed to be the shortest maritime link between the Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean. The benefits of the Northeast Passage are self-evident: compared to the Suez Canal route, the distance between China and the major ports of Northern Europe is about 40% shorter and as much as 60% shorter compared to the route around the African Cape Horn. It makes an enormous difference whether you have to travel 21,000 km to get from Shanghai to Hamburg or take a 15,000 km shortcut through the Arctic. The savings in time, fuel and emissions are huge, which is especially important in these times of fierce competition between shipping companies. As an added bonus, this route allows ships to circumvent areas notoriously frequented by pirates.

Many advantages, one major disadvantage

The reason why this shipping lane is still used by only a comparatively small number of ships – more ships pass through the Suez Canal every day than along the route between the Barents Sea and the Bering Strait – is quite simple: the passage is icebound for more than half of the year and can only be navigated during a short window from early July to late November. Even during this short period of time, the route is complicated. Furthermore, Russia charges a transit fee and, in difficult ice conditions, icebreakers have to be used to clear a passage. This creates additional costs. Rapid meteorological changes, sudden ice formations and errant icebergs can also create significant problems. In addition, emergencies might quickly result in critical situations, as the infrastructure of Russia’s northern ports has been in poor condition since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is No wonder that 19 million tons were transported on the Northeast Passage in 2019 and a record amount of 33 million tons in 2020. Russian President Vladimir Putin is aiming for a volume of 80 million tons by 2024. For comparison: 1.2 billion tons of freight passed the Suez Canal in 2019.

Is the icebreaker about to become obsolete?

This short time window during which transit is possible will grow wider in the coming decades due to global warming. Anthropogenic climate change is also more pronounced in the Arctic regions than in other regions of the world. The size and thickness of the Arctic ice cover has decreased substantially in in recent decades. The Northeast Passage and the North American Northwest Passage were simultaneously ice-free for the first time on August 29, 2008. Since then, the ice cover has been steadily receding year by year. A research expedition undertaken by a Chinese icebreaker from the Pacific to the North Atlantic in August 2012, for example, encountered far less ice than expected, so a more direct and thus shorter route closer to the North Pole could be used for the return journey. According to some studies, the Northeast Passage might be completely ice-free during the summer months as early as the 2050s.

A pioneering development

From a historical perspective, these climatic changes are highly unexpected, as this part of the world was always viewed as a hostile environment and its development as an outstanding pioneering achievement. As early as the 12th century, the Pomors, Russian settlers, advanced along the coast towards eastern Siberia. Over the course of time, however, this venture was abandoned midway. The 16th and 17th centuries saw a number of attempts by the Dutch, English, Swedes and Danes to find an alternative sea route to Asia – all of them unsuccessful. It was not until 1878/79 that the Swedish explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld managed to break through from the west to the east with a converted sailing ship, the SS Vega. It would not be strictly accurate to call this an actual transit, however, as the Vega was blocked by ice and trapped in the Bering Strait for ten months. The first successful one-season transit was not achieved until 1932, by the Soviet icebreaker Aleksandr Sibirjakow. The passage was finally opened to international shipping during the summer months in 1967 and was subsequently kept clear for shipping by nuclear-powered icebreakers (331 transits were recorded as late as 1987), before the dissolution of the USSR led to a severe decline in shipping traffic along the Northeast Passage.

Global warming opens up the way for commercial use

In 2009, the Bremen heavy-lift shipping company Beluga Shipping caused a sensation by being the first to use this sea route again with two cargo vessels. According to the shipping company, the ships Beluga Fraternity and Beluga Foresight, which departed from Vladivostok in the late summer of 2009, were both ice class E3 (according to the Germanischer Lloyd classification system) and therefore suitable for the trans-arctic transit. Escorted by icebreakers, they transported power plant parts to Nowy Port and then continued on to Europe. In September 2018, the Venta Maersk traversed the Northeast Passage in 37 days. It was the first container ship of this size  to do so, apart from specially built liquid gas tankers and bulk carriers.  As a large feeder ship built to ice class 1A (it can cope with ice of up to one meter thickness), it is specially designed with a reinforced hull for use in cold waters (to minus 25 degrees Celsius). There is, however, not much likelihood of gigantic 40,000 TEU container ships embarking along this route in the near future, as the maiden voyage of the Venta Maersk revealed a major drawback: with a draft of only 11 meters, some sections of the shipping lane are simply too shallow for large container ships. The Venta Maersk normally has a slot capacity of just under 3,500 TEU, but the shallow waters meant that it could only carry 600 reefer containers. Ultra-large container ships are not built to ice-class standards and are hampered by further disadvantages such as length, so the Northeast Passage will never be able to compete with the Suez Route in terms of volume.

“We do not view the Northeast Passage as a viable commercial alternative to existing routes at present. Nevertheless, we are keeping a close eye on further developments. The passage is currently only navigable for approximately three months a year, but this may well change over time.” 

Palle Laursen, Chief Technical Officer of MAERSK, takes stock of the successful passage


A cargo ship and an icebreaker rolled into one!

Enormous progress is currently being made in the construction of agile cargo ships that can travel through the ice and cope with difficult conditions without an icebreaker in front. Known as “double acting ships”, they are equipped with a specially modeled hull and  are designed to run either full ahead or astern, depending on whether they are traveling through open waters or ice. This type of ship successfully combines two different functions in one and might be used for certain types of shipments where the classic, longer route is not an option.

For the time being, patience is the watchword

Even if it does take some time, the global economy anticipates numerous potential benefits from a shorter supply route to its European and Asian production sites and sales markets. The passage through the Arctic Ocean might well become a deciding factor in the fierce price war between the major shipping companies. Industry rumor has it that China, with its state-owned shipping company COSCO, has set its sights on becoming the top dog on this route. Environmentalists, however, are already sounding the alarm about the dangers of increasing traffic. They fear that this will have lasting negative consequences for the extremely sensitive ecosystem of the Arctic. In addition, the more ships there are on the route, the greater the risk of serious accidents in the region, which is rich in natural resources. But who knows, perhaps global efforts to counter global warming will have put an end to these plans before then.

An entire year trapped in the Arctic ice

It could be the largest-scale Arctic research expedition of all time: In September 2019, the German research icebreaker Polarstern departed from Tromsø, Norway and will spend the next year drifting through the Arctic Ocean, trapped in the ice. A total of 600 people from 19 countries, supplied by other icebreakers and aircraft, are participating in the expedition – and several times that number of researchers will subsequently use the data gathered to take climate and ecosystem research to the next level. The mission is spearheaded by the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research and is called MOSAiC (Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate).

Read more about the expedition on their blog