German ships navigate Northeast Passage – but is it a good thing?

September 9, 2009

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?














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The reduced ammount of co2 that is released by using this route is positive, although it is a realatively small reduction in the grand scheme. I think this story raises questions about bigger things than the actual ammount of co2 reduced from using this route, although any reduction is good. The big push now is co2 reduction, which we must do; but it is already too late for reduction to stop some of the things occurring now and soon to occur. So I think it would be prudent to not only look at the benefits of the change occuring (like better shipping routes), but also consider the damaging results from these changes. We need to prepare to adapt to various changes in our world. This story highlights one of the impacts of these changes, there will be more. Looking ahead and planning can save lives from some of these, unfortunatley not all. So with our co2 reduction efforts we should also look at adaptation to the change accurring and that will occur.

Posted by dr wilth | Report as abusive

The question is actually irrelevant in the long run. These ships burn diesel (or maybe the cheaper bunker fuel), which is, like all other petroleum products, in a finite supply. As the Chinese/Asian economies revive, we will again see the increase in petroleum consumption, which will hasten global warming but will also hasten the end of petroleum supply. And once its gone, the shipping lanes will be quiet. 25 years. And the real fornication for the human race will not come from global warming but from a lack of oil and natural gas. Global warming, therefore, is irrelevant.

Posted by Sanoran Triamesh | Report as abusive

The Northeast was first navigated in the late 1800’s and has been continually used since then. The term “Global Warming” has nothing with navigatable conditions as the passage is and has been used annually during summer months. Lets get the facts straight.

Posted by R Flynn | Report as abusive

I think the Mr Kirschbaum is correct in saying that the Northeast Passage (Northern Sea Route) has been opened by global warming. Certainly, this is the first time Western commercial vessels navigated the passage non-stop and without having their paths cleared for them by icebreakers.

As to the question of whether or not this is a good thing, no it isn’t – if you singularly consider this as a clear indicator of climate change. On the other hand, if the tonnage of commercial shipping passing through the route every summer increases considerably, that would mean a huge reduction in the consumption (burning) of fossil fuel, which in turn will help slow down warming. But why squeeze in dozens of ships to make the journey within a two-month window, when they can still use rail to move goods from east to west and vice-versa, all year round?

Posted by Emmanuel Gonot | Report as abusive

Yes, it’s a good thing. Waste and pollution are bad. Using the Northeast passage reduces both. That’s good.

Climate change is not inherently bad. It’s happened on a large scale before (Ice Age I, warm-up I, Ice Age II, warm-up II), mostly without significant input from humans. It’s reasonable (and humble?) to suppose that this variability is normal and outside our control, rather than something to waste resources trying to control. Waste is bad.

We need to stay focussed on fighting pollution. It’s been a mistake to link cleaning up the environment with our fond hopes of controlling the climate. What if climate warming has peaked, as some scientists now argue? Are we off the hook regarding protecting the environment?

We should protect the environment because it’s good to do so. And our celebration of any gains in that direction should be wholehearted, rather than half-hearted.

Posted by Keith Newell | Report as abusive

Climate warming has not peaked. The 2000s are the warmest decade ever recorded. 2008, allegedly a “cold year” was still the 10th hottest year ever recorded, despite seeing La Nina conditions for most of the year and being in the deepest solar minimum in a century. Only two years in the 90s were hotter than 2008 — 1997 and 1998, when the planet was in the grips of the strongest El Nino ever recorded. Meanwhile, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008 are ALL in the top 10, and 2009 will be as well.

The argument isn’t that natural cycles don’t affect the climate, it’s that our actions (spewing out greenhouse gases and cutting down forests that absorb them) are beginning to override them. You still see year-to-year variation in temperature, but the unmistakable trend is upwards, with no natural cause evident. At some point, it will become warm enough to start positive feedback cycles like methane release from the permafrost, and the warming will continue no matter what we do. So the idea is not to get to that point, but that requires a whole heck of a lot of action in a short period of time.

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Posted by oes tsetnoc | Report as abusive