Climate change opens Arctic’s Northeast passage

August 22, 2009

Two German ships set off on Friday on the first commercial journey from Asia to western Europe via the Arctic through the fabled Northeast Passage – a trip made possible by climate change. Niels Stolberg, president and CEO of Bremen-based Beluga Shipping, said the Northern Sea Route will cut thousands of nautical miles off the ships’ journey from South Korea to the Netherlands, reducing fuel consumption and emissions of greenhouse gas. I had the chance to ask Stolberg a few questions about the Arctic expedition:

Question: What’s the status of the voyage?
Stolberg: MV “Beluga Fraternity” and the MV “Beluga Foresight” have just started to sail from Vladivostok (on Friday) with the destination Novyy Port at the river Ob.

Question: When did they leave Vladivostok and when will they arrive in Europe?
Stolberg: They’ve just left Vladivostok. They are scheduled to arrive in Novyy Port around September 6th. After discharging, they will proceed via Murmansk to Rotterdam. Estimated time of arrival is still to be confirmed and up to further voyage development.

Question: How much time/fuel/money/CO2 will this northern route save?
Stolberg: The amount of time, fuel, money or emission saved will be significant by transiting the Northeast Passage instead of sailing the traditional way through the Suez. From Ulsan via the Suez Canal to Rotterdam it would be a roughly 11,000 nautical mile journey whereas the short cut between Asia and Europe utilising the Northeast Passage is a 8,700 mile journey. The saved distance in detail always depends on the route, so the routes could be about 3,000 to 5,000 miles shorter. Savings of about three million euros by sending six vessels through the Northeast Passage per open time frame is realistic. Saving distance means saving bunker means saving money: That is the formula.

Question: Your company has been a pioneer in reducing costs/CO2 — is that why you’re so eager to sail the northern route?
Stolberg: It is a hallmark of the corporate philosophy of Beluga Shipping to go off the beaten tracks whenever possible and reasonable: MV “Beluga SkySails”, co-powered by a towing kite system, or many projects developed and driven by our own department “Research & Innovation” follow that principle with the overall intention and make shipping more efficient as well as into a greener business. In this sense, we reckon that the Northeast Passage offers unmatched chances for efficient sea traffic when as an effect of global warming in the summer there is the chance of using this seaway for a couple of weeks, thus connecting the markets in Europe and Asia

Question: Is drawing attention to global warming an aspect of this journey?
Stolberg: This is not our intention nor does it reflect our business. My personal opinion is that global warming and climate change, obviously, are developments with some negative effects. However, the melting ice in the Northeast Passage and thus the possibility to transit through this passage for commercial purpose has positive effects, too. This development enables shipping companies to reduce bunker consumption and as a consequence CO2 and other emissions as well which, in turn, are small factors to limit the scope of the global warming.

Question: Do you think many other ships will be taking this Arctic short cut?
Stolberg: The possibility to transit the Northeast Passage in combination with the cargo flow between Europe and Asia is a major reason and motivation why the Northern Sea Route will become even more attractive for shipping companies. So, it is our goal to utilise this seaway regularly, if possible, and we could imagine others will follow our example. You also have to have appropriate modern vessels, you have to have an experienced team of experts on board and all behind in the onshore offices and you have to be granted permission by the authorities.

Question: Why have no other ships tried this northern route yet? Why are you the first?
Stolberg: Russian submarines and icebreakers have used the northern route in the past. But it wasn’t open for regular commercial shipping until now because there are many areas with thick ice. It was only last summer that satellite pictures revealed the ice is melting and a small corridor opened which could enable commercial shipping through the Northeast Passage. We’re the first company to travel the route this summer because we have suitable vessels and are well prepared to master the challenge.

Question: What are the dangers of the northern route?
Stolberg: There are numerous challenges and some risks awaiting both vessel and crew. Even though the ice is melting in the respective time frame, cold temperature and ice, drifting ice fields or ridges can become a problem and produce a risk of injury to the crew as well as a risk of damage to the vessel. The look out is highly important. Also the ship material and not least the seaworthy and all lashings of the cargo have to be checked constantly under this even more rough and inhospitable conditions than elsewhere on the ocean. There is no expertise or field report we could rely on. However, we are well prepared and have been intensively working on this project for far more than a year now.

Question: When exactly is the “window”? Will it be opening wider soon?
Stolberg: The open window for transiting the Northeast Passage roughly is a six to eight weeks time frame in the Russian summer between August and September. This is when the sun powers up to 20 or even more degrees Celsius in Russia and the ice along the route is mostly melting. Thereafter the sun loses power again and the area refreezes. Whether or not the window will open wider soon is a question only climate experts can answer.

PHOTO: The Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer (AMSR-E), a high-resolution passive microwave Instrument on NASA’s Aqua satellite, shows the state of Arctic sea ice on September 10 in this file image released September 16, 2008. Arctic nations are promising to avoid new “Cold War” scrambles linked to climate change, but a thaw may allow new shipping routes. REUTERS/NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio

5 comments

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I find it rather odd that the legal status of the passage under international law is not at all mentioned in this Q&A. It is still widely disputed whether the passage is considered as ‘historic internal waters’ belonging to Canada, or if it constitutes an ‘international straight’ (as based on the ICJ’s Corfu Channel case). Clearly, Americans and Europeans have vested interests in defining the multiple channels that constitute the passage as an international straight, therefore permitting the right of innocent passage (as made apparent by the perspective of this German shipping company). Yet, I am dispointed by the lack of questions regarding the legal nature of this passage, especially since the Arctic Exception under the UN’s Law of the Sea will soon need to be revised due to climate change and its direct impact on navigability in Canada’s northern archipelagos. This is a disputed international legal issue that will increasingly come to the fore as navigation is made increasingly possible within a larger window of opportunity each summer.

Posted by Mathieu Labrèche | Report as abusive

I think the northwest passage should be freely open to all countries/shipping companies. The ammount of CO2 saved justifies this. War vessles could be denighed passage, but that would have to be for all nations.
I believe people will soon tire of war and find a way to Wage Peace.
I also see that rescue vessles would be able to reach the scenes of disasters faster using this route, and that should be considered.

Posted by Antoinette Edmonds | Report as abusive

Mathieu Labrèche makes great points in his comment. Canadians will readily tell you that the northern passage is wholly Canadian and shouldn’t even be up for negotiation. Stephen Harper the Canadian PM with the support of opposition members in the House of Commons is making moves to ensure Canadian sovereignty over the arctic regions. Military assets are being moved north and industry is being encouraged to establish itself there to help enshrine Canada’s claim to the region.

Certainly interesting times ahead as the globe continues to warm and the ice continues to shrink each year.

I am not worried about who uses this pass. or for what reason it is used. I am worried that the ice are breaking up thus leading to further Global warming. Passage of ships will delay the ice formation. Once we set foot there again sure we are going to destroy more of these ice sheets indirectly. i m just worried!

Posted by Ashok | Report as abusive

People, this has nothing to do with Canada. This is the northeast (not northwest) passage, along the northern coast of Russia.

Posted by Greg | Report as abusive

co2 gas…

Your topic Docuticker ” Blog Archive ” Study reports “direct use” of natural gas … was interesting when I found it on Sunday searching for co2 gas…

[...] the shrinking Arctic Sea ice. A few weeks ago when the two ships departed on their journey I had the chance to ask Niels Stolberg, president and CEO of Bremen-based Beluga Shipping, about the “bigger question” of [...]

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