The drawbacks of Arctic shipping

The drawbacks of Arctic shipping

The Christophe de Margerie is the first vessel to navigate the Northern Sea Route without an icebreaker escort. This is exciting news for states and businesses interested in exploiting new opportunities in the Arctic. However, the NSR is not as promising at it may seem, and the speed of climate change in the region brings significant risks.   

A new route

On August 17th last year, the Christophe de Margerie, a blue and white tanker ship, traveled via the Northern Sea Route (NSR) from Norway to South Korea in a record six days, twelve hours, and fifteen minutes, becoming the first merchant vessel to travel the route without an icebreaker escort. The voyage was roughly 30% faster than the southern route through the Suez Canal, but speed came at the expense of size. With a draught of 12 meters, the Christophe carried less cargo than ships operating on more conventional routes.

The decrease in Arctic sea ice brought about by climate change is opening new shipping routes across the north, including the NSR. The route can shave thousands of kilometers off the journey between Europe and Asia. The number of ships using the NSR increased from four in 2010 to 71 in 2013. The Christophe de Margerie is the first of a planned fifteen ice-breaking ships that are expected to carry up to 16.5 million tons of LNG from the Russian Arctic to Asia by 2020, well over twice the total cargo volume transported on the NSR in 2016. However, significant doubts about Moscow’s ability to finance the plan suggest that Russia’s goals may be out of reach.

Nevertheless, these are exciting developments. Many states are now formulating Arctic policies, even those far from the region. Some analysts have noted that the NSR offers China a means of reducing its strategic dependence on bottlenecks such as the Malacca Strait, which would decrease the relative power of the US Navy. Even tropical Singapore has appointed a Special Envoy for Arctic Affairs and has openly acknowledged its “defensive and aggressive” interests in the NSR. The island’s maritime industry could be affected and Singapore hopes to cash in on the potential to exploit new resource opportunities revealed by the retreating ice. Yet it’s equally important to note the route’s limitations and risks.

Challenges for Arctic shipping

The largest limitation to the NSR is the shallow depth of the Laptev Strait, located a few hundred kilometres east of the mouth of the Lena river. The strait limits the size of ships transiting the NSR to a 12-metre draught – a size known as ‘Arcticmax’. Arcticmax ships can only carry up to 4,500 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU) of cargo, a paltry number compared to the 25,000 TEU limit on the Suez Canal and the 18,000 TEU ‘ultra-large container ships’ under construction worldwide. Shipping companies are prioritising size over speed. It’s unclear whether the gains in speed on the NSR compensate for the decrease in cargo volume.

Analysts have also pointed to the potential for terrorists to ship weapons along the new route, which is remote and poorly monitored. The increasing economic potential of the High North, which has been estimated to contain a quarter of the world’s undiscovered petroleum reserves, has also made the region one of ‘profound importance’ to NATO as Russia and China step up their activities. Gazprom, for example, has recently deployed a Chinese Nanhai-8 drilling rig in the Kola Bay, which has been heralded as a ‘breakthrough’ in Sino-Russian cooperation in the Arctic. Although global warming is also likely to impose significant costs, such as the need to reconstruct infrastructure built on melting permafrost, the growth experienced by Arctic cities such as Murmansk is an indicator of the region’s increasing strategic importance.

Another significant risk to states and businesses not often discussed is increasingly unpredictable weather. The Arctic is hardly a benign environment at the best of times and is becoming increasingly volatile as the planet heats up. Surface temperatures in the Arctic are rising at twice the global average rate. This heat is decreasing the stability of the polar vortex air current, resulting in more frequent extreme cold events in Russia and Europe. In mid-January, temperatures in Siberia dropped to below the average surface temperature of Mars, causing thermometers to explode. Unusual jet stream patterns are also changing the routes of northern storms. Unpredictable and extreme weather along with poor search-and-rescue assets and infrastructure across the north of Russia pose risks for ships and crews transiting the NSR, likely resulting in larger insurance premiums for Arctic-bound vessels. These risks may have contributed to the 89% drop in traffic on the NSR in 2014 and 2015.

The NSR is undoubtedly likely to grow in popularity as a transit route over the coming years, meaning the Christophe de Margerie will no longer be alone on the sea ice. ‘Destination shipping’, or shipping related to hydrocarbon projects, will also increase. Some risks will decrease as infrastructure improves, but new risks will emerge. The arrival of the Christophe in South Korea in January may, as one commentator put it, represent the start of “a new era for the NSR”. Yet this era is only made possible by climate change – which itself has unpredictable consequences.

Categories: Environment, International

About Author

Ewen Levick

Ewen Levick is an Australian security and strategic policy analyst based in Sydney. He holds a BA from the University of Sydney, Honours from the University of New South Wales, and an MSc in International Relations from the University of Edinburgh. He also writes for CABLE magazine, and previously served in the Australian Army.