Global environmental challenges
German ships navigate Northeast Passage – but is it a good thing?
Two German ships have successfully navigated their way through the fabled Northeast Passage on the first commercial journey by a western shipping company on the Northern Sea Route along Russia’s Arctic-facing northern shore — a new cost-cutting passageway from Asia to Europe made possible by climate change.
The MV “Beluga Fraternity” and the MV “Beluga Foresight” (pictured above) arrived safely at Novvy Port/Yamburg in Russia at the delta of the river Ob on Monday after a 17-day trip through the icy cold but briefly ice-free Arctic Ocean after departing from Vladivostok on Aug. 21. The ships had earlier picked up their cargo in Ulsan, South Korea and after delivering it in Novvy Port will steam on to the Netherlands to complete the Pacific-to-Atlantic journey that explorers and merchants have been dreaming about for centuries.
By taking advantage of the short two-month window of opportunity in August and September before the Arctic Ocean freezes over again, the journey from South Korean through the Northeast Passage (not to be confused with the Northwest Passage through Canada) to Europe cut about 3,300 nautical miles off the usual 11,000 nautical mile trip via the southern route through the Suez Canal. Instead of the usual 32-day journey on the southern route, the Northern Sea Route takes 23 days. The shorter distance cuts the cost of the journey considerably because less fuel was used — and thus less CO2 emitted.
That may sound like ostensibly good news but it also highlights the fact of 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 global warming. Stolberg, whose company has already been using a giant towing kite system to help power another ship the MV “Beluga SkySails”, said his aim to utilise the Northeast Passage opened by global warming was simply to cut voyage time which lowers costs and CO2 with the help of this new avenue for Euro-Asian shipping.
“We’re all very proud and delighted to be the first western shipping company to successfully transit the legendary Northeast Passage,” Stolberg said in an email on Tuesday after the two ships arrived safely. “To transit the Northeast Passage so well and professionally without incidents on the premiere is the result of our extremely accurate preparation as well as the outstanding teamwork between our attentive captains, our reliable meteorologists and our engaged crew.”
The two ships sailed through the East Siberian Sea, the Sannikov Strait and the Vilkizki Strait. They reported small ice bergs, ice fields and ice blocks but all were safely passed without incident. Beluga Shipping, which had hoped in vain to launch the first journey last summer, announced plans for further project journeys through the Northeast Passage in 2010. Beluga wanted to attempt the journey a year ago but did not get the necessary clearance from Russian authorities in time. Stolberg believes that up to 3 million euros in costs could be saved each year if six ships could take the Northeast Passage instead of the southern route.
So thanks to climate change the first western commercial ships have made it through the Northeast Passage and many more are sure to follow. It will save costs and CO2. But is it a good thing?