Environment Forum

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.” 

Climate change opens Arctic’s Northeast passage

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.

What’s nature worth? Financial crunch may bring rethink

Acehnese plant mangrove trees at the site of a former housing development which was destroyed by last December’s tsunami in Meuraksa near Banda Aceh April 11, 2005. The local government and Acehnese started planting thousands of mangroves in the area after the tsunami devastated the city. REUTERS/Tarmizy Harva en/KSWould you pay $1,000 a year for a remote patch of mangrove swamp?

Maybe not — but more and more environmental economists are arguing that you should.

And they say that the worst financial crisis in 80 years could be a good opportunity to overhaul the world’s economic system and put a price tag on what are often viewed as “free” services from nature, ranging from coral reefs’ role as nurseries for fish, to wetlands’ ability to purify water. See the story here.

Markets failed to regulate banks in the current crunch and they are doing even less to slow global warming that the U.N. Climate Panel projects will bring far bigger economic problems — more droughts, floods, heatwaves that disrupt food and water supplies and rising seas that could swamp low-lying coasts from Bangladesh to Florida.  A pair of scarlet macaws perch on a tree in Bolivia’s Machia Park in Villa Tunari in the Bolivian Amazon jungle 520 km (323 miles) southeast of La Paz August 17, 2005. The 38-hectare park, created in 1992, is now home to nearly 1,000 animal inhabitants, all rescued from captivity. It has become a popular destination for many foreigners traveling through Bolivia, with dozens of Europeans, Israelis and Bolivians working together for several weeks in close contact with the animals. These volunteers consider the experience therapeutic for both the animals and themselves, and aim to readapt the animals to their natural habitat and eventually release them into the wild. Picture taken August 17, 2005. REUTERS/David Mercado PP05080156 RR/KS