Is newly traversed passage through the Arctic about to revolutionise shipping?

The News

  • For the first time, a container ship navigated the Northern Sea Route of the Arctic Ocean, as a result of melting sea ice caused by global warming.


Key Highlights

  • As a result of melting of Arctic sea, shipping companies are exploring the Northern Sea Route as an alternative to conventional sea route between East Asia and Western Europe.
  • While the current sea route via the Malacca Strait, Indian Ocean, Gulf of Aden and Suez Canal traverses about 21,000 km, the northern sea route traverses only 12,800 km.
  • Thus the Northern Sea Route is said to cut journey times between Asia and Europe by up to two weeks.
  • As a result, Arctic sea is seen as a shortcut for Asia-to-Europe, or Asia-to-North America traffic.
  • Now for the first time a Russian commercial vessel known as Venta Maersk traversed the Northern Sea Route up through the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska, before travelling along Russia’s north coast and into the Norwegian Sea.


Global warming and the emerging Arctic sea route

  • Global warming has caused the sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean to decline in every decade since the 1980s.
  • This is due to continuous heat waves in the northern hemisphere this year with temperatures rising to around 30 degrees Centigrade.
  • The Arctic region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, with sea ice, snow cover, glaciers, and permafrost all diminishing over recent decades.
  • The sea ice reached its lowest levels in the recorded history, this March in Bering’s sea.
  • Thus the route has been witnessing growing traffic during summer months between July to October.
  • According to the data about 2,100 cargo ships operated in Arctic waters in 2015.
  • It is projected that by 2060, ships with reinforced hulls could operate for nine months in the year.
  • Thus while Russia is developing oil and gas fields in Siberia, shipping activity in the region is likely to increase significantly over the next decade.



Challenges to Arctic

  • Ships use heavy fuel oil which emits particulate matter called black carbon in the atmosphere.
  • This black carbon reduces the albedo of ice and snow contributing to climate change.
  • Ships are the biggest emitters of oxides of nitrogen and sulphur with 15 per cent of nitrogen oxides and 8 per cent of sulphur worldwide.
  • In additions ships are fraught with the risk of oil spills.
  • Heavy fuel oil if spilled emulsifies on the water’s surface or sinks to the seafloor, unlike lighter fuels which disperse and evaporate.
  • Recently, the International Maritime Organization, the U.N. body that regulates the shipping industry, began laying the groundwork to ban ships from using or carrying heavy fuel oil in the Arctic.
  • However the ban will be enforced only by 2021.
  • The biggest hurdles will be securing Russia’s approval as Russia has plans to invest tens of billions of dollars in coming years to beef up polar shipping activity along the Northern Sea Route.
  • China also wants to build a “Polar Silk Road” and redirect its cargo ships along the Russian route.



  • While warming Arctic does offer a cheaper highway for moving goods around the world, it could severely affect the fragile ecosystem if proper regulations are not in place.

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