The environment and Arctic Shipping

July 4, 2018 /

Mariners have known about short cuts to the Pacific via the Arctic for a long time. The Northern Sea Route (NSR), north of Siberia, was discovered 300 years ago, and the Northwest Passage (NWP) has been on the map for more than a century. Although these routes are much shorter than the traditional trading routes from Europe and the eastern US to the Pacific, until recently they were only navigable by specialised ships. They have not been considered commercially viable until now. The world is warming, and over the last several decades climate change has begun to significantly change the game for vessel navigation. Alarmingly, global warming is not evenly distributed over the globe. In the Arctic, warming is at a much higher level than the global average. Svalbard, Norway, for example, is experiencing a temperature increase that is 6°C higher than the global average. Climate change, retreating summer ice and the prospect of shorter journey times and 40% lower fuel costs has led Russia, European governments and some industries to expect a major ice-free shipping lane to open above Russia, allowing regular, year-long trade between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans within a few years. However, low bunker fuel prices, a short sailing season and continuing treacherous ice conditions in the Arctic even in summer months means it could be 2040 at the earliest before it is commercially viable for ordinary merchant ships to pass through In September 1980, Arctic ice covered some 8 mill. km2. In 2012, Arctic ice cover dropped to less than half that area -- 3.4M km2 -- the lowest ever recorded. The reduction in Arctic ice cover is relatively linear (see image below, click for larger version), and the trend means the NSR and the NWR are now navigable for part of the year, every year. Peaking with 71 transits in 2013, the Northern Sea Route to the north of Russia has been more popular for commercial transits than its counterpart in the Americas, but NSR transits declined after 2013 and were down to 25 in 2017. Nevertheless, due to the drop in Arctic sea ice and enormous amounts of oil, natural gas and various metal ores, the Siberian coast has seen a significant increase in shipping activities. Decreasing ice coverage in the Arctic would open a larger window for transits. A report published in the journal Nature Climate Change in June 2018 predicts that, even if we manage to keep temperature change within the parameters of the 2°C temperature increase as embedded in the Paris Agreement, we will experience a completely ice-free Arctic during the Northern hemisphere's summer months within this century. Russia has tried to open up the Arctic to international traffic by offering icebreaker service and better port facilities. But cargo in transit along the northern sea route dropped from 1.3m tonnes in 2013 to 300,000 tonnes in 2014. Last year only 100,000 tonnes was transported between Asia and Europe on the route. However, there was a big rise in the number of vessels going to and from Russian Arctic ports. So how would an ice-free Arctic summer impact shipping? As of now, vessels cut off 40% of the distance travelled between Rotterdam and Yokohama by using the Northern Sea Route. An ice-free Arctic would likely mean 50% or more in miles saved over traditional routes. Shipping could save millions of tonne-miles and huge amounts of fuel if the predicted growth of the NSR's navigable window holds true, an outcome that would be good for shipping’s global greenhouse gas emissions account. Average Arctic temperatures are rising twice as fast as elsewhere in the world and the polar ice cap’s permanent cover is shrinking at a rate of around 10 percent per decade. By the end of this century, summers in the Arctic could be free of ice. Black Carbon One alarm raised by some green NGOs that is supported by many nations including some of the Arctic littoral states, is that shipping’s emissions of black carbon (BC) in the Arctic is speeding up the melting of Arctic ice -- sea ice as well as glacial ice. Black carbon is basically soot emanating from incomplete engine combustion and is generally believed to be more related to the combustion of Heavy Fuel Oil (HFO) than that of lighter distillates. It is also related to the condition of the engine as well as to the engine load. Scientists have predicted negative consequences from the rapid melting of Arctic sea ice and the Arctic glaciers that will be felt globally. Melting will result in rising sea levels globally, threatening the existence of many island states. More open water means further absorption of the sun's warmth and heating of the Arctic Ocean — an accelerating cycle. Many large cities will need to invest in expensive climate change mitigation enterprises, such as increasing the height and extent of dykes and barriers. Two obvious examples of the threat to low-lying cities are New Orleans, which was inundated during Hurricane Katrina and New York and New Jersey which faced huge storm surges from Hurricane Sandy. Rising sea levels and a likely increase in frequency and violence of hurricanes offers frightening scnarios for low-lying cities and countries. Massive melting of Arctic ice might also, according to some scientists, force the Gulf Stream to take a more southerly course, which will result in a much colder northern Europe. So even as climate change produces an average increase in global temperatures, there are likely to be regions that will experience colder weather and climate. Ban on Heavy Fuel Oil in the Arctic? Last year Canada and other states proposed that IMO should commence work on mitigating the risks of use and carriage of HFO as fuel by ships in the Arctic. The European Parliament has broadly supported this move by adopting a resolution calling for a ban on the use of HFO in Arctic waters. Prior to that, in October 2016, the IMO at MEPC 70 decided that from 1 January 2020, all ships operating outside Emission Control Areas (ECAs) must not burn fuel oil with a sulphur content above 0.5% (by mass). When that rule was adopted in 2008, it was believed that such future fuel oil would be distillate, either marine gas oil or marine diesel oil. In connection with the 0.1% sulphur limit in ECAs in 2015, the world saw a number of new fuels that did not fall under the traditional definition of distillate fuel. It is expected that the 2020 global cap of 0.5% sulphur limit will see the introduction of many new fuels. Some of these are expected to be based on de-sulphurised HFO derived from sweet crude, others might be blends of HFO with low-sulphur products. It could even be new oil products that the world has not yet seen. The Environment The WWF state that the trend will increase pressure on a relatively pristine area, and that although the routes will not be open year round, companies are already investing billions of dollars in tankers capable of going through ice. The WWF are:
  • Mapping data on Arctic species, ecosystems, cultures and industry that will help us make concrete policy recommendations pertaining to Arctic ship traffic.
  • Advocating for a strong Polar Code, currently under discussion in the International Maritime Organization, which will set legally binding environmental requirements for all ships in the Arctic.
  • Working to establish PSSAs (particularly sensitive sea areas) to protect vulnerable areas from shipping activities.
Their vision for Arctic shipping is:
  • Ships venturing into Arctic waters must be prepared for Arctic conditions, especially those carrying ecologically hazardous cargos.
  • Operational practices for ships operating in Arctic waters should include measures forbidding the discharge of ballast waters in Arctic areas to prevent the introduction of alien species.
  • These measures need to be backed up with monitoring and enforcement.
Conclusion It will be decades before big cargo ships link China and northern Europe by taking a shortcut through the Arctic Ocean, and it will remain cheaper to send trade between Europe and the east via the Suez canal until then. The Arctic sea ice will be too thick and treacherous for many years, requiring expensive ice breakers and strengthened hulls. The Copenhagen Business School report concludes that “the Arctic navigation season is currently too short and ice conditions are too unpredictable for liner shipping to be feasible. Arctic liner shipping will only become a viable alternative to the contemporary shipping lanes if global warming continues to melt the ice cover along the North-west passage and the Northern sea route. It is highly unlikely that large-scale containerised cargo transports will appear in the near future. The question then arises: when, if ever, will the ice conditions allow for continuous and economically feasible container transport along the route?” The greatest potential for the use of ice-reinforced container ships was found if the speed of global warming increased and the price of fuel is high. But even in this scenario, the cost per container was about 10% higher than going via the Suez canal route. Source: / The Guardian / WWF