Less ice, more business: record maritime traffic to oil and gas fields in the Arctic

"Due to climate change and dramatic ice melting, there is a good chance that the northern sea route will be used. Ship traffic will increase due to the interest of countries and the attractiveness of the natural riches of the Arctic."

This analysis by Merchant Navy Captain Mohammed Essallamy led the research that won the award for the best thesis of the World Maritime University in 2008. Three decades later, reality has confirmed it. Less ice, more business. Maritime traffic across an increasingly melting Arctic Ocean has broken records in the dead of winter: ship traffic grew by 15% last Januarywhen the ice cap is still growing.

During that month, 184 voyages were recorded through the waters of the Northern Sea Route (NSR). "It is a very high amount for this time of year," analyzes the Northern Route Information Office of the Nord University of Norway. A jump of 36% compared to 2019.

Although 49% of ships entering ocean waters are commercial fishing vessels, the northernmost route, historically closed by ice for many months, is dominated by fossil fuel shipping followed by freight. In the winter peak of 2022, 27% of the ships that sailed there carried liquefied natural gas and another 24% were tankers.

Most of the January traffic corresponded to the Yamal LNG project, the export of oil products from the Arctic Gate terminal and the development of the Salmanovskoe field, also dedicated to liquefied natural gas.

"Global warming has led to a thinning of the polar ice, to the point that more and more ships use these routes that shorten the trip considerably," they explain in the organization Transport & Environment (T & E). "Shipping companies have invested heavily in ships that can traverse the ice, but even so, in 2018 the first voyage without an icebreaker was made," they add.

The mixture of global warming and specialized ships means that, even in a month that is not particularly negative for the ice layer, more ships take advantage of this trade route. Last January, the average Arctic ice extent was 1% less than the average for the month between 1991 and 2020, according to satellite observations of the European Copernicus system. However, this is a lesser evil as "it is still lower than any extension measured before 2005".

The northern route cuts in half the distance ships must travel between the Far East and Europe. Although it was officially declared open to international traffic in 1987 by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, it was hardly used. However, climate change and the accelerated melting of the Arctic Circle have made natural resources accessible and the waters usable to transport them.

A few decades ago, there were areas of the Arctic Ocean whose depth did not exceed 10 or 15 meters. As the ice has melted, ships have found better conditions to transit through deep water. The forecast is that traffic will grow by 50% between 2012 and 2050, they say in T&E. The possibility of using this space has meant that it was left out of specific figures for environmental protection.

In addition to being a symptom and consequence of the climate crisis, the thawed waters of the north allow the multiplication of human activities at that latitude: especially the extraction of fossil fuels and the transport of goods. Environmental risks are multiplied by the high fragility of the Arctic.

A compilation made for the World Maritime University (institution sponsored by the International Maritime Organization of the UN) detailed the weak points:

In addition to the hydrocarbon extraction activities themselves, the greatest environmental concern comes from the fuels used in ships. Especially the so-called heavy diesel oil (HFO). More ships, more fuel and more danger of spilling it.

HFO "is an extremely viscous fuel that persists in cold Arctic waters for weeks or more," explains the Arctic Council intergovernmental forum. That "multiplies its damaging potential."

Also, in ice-covered waters, an HFO leak can end up trapping that fuel underwater. This fuel is one of those that releases the most harmful emissions into the atmosphere when it is burned in ship engines. in 2024 an HFO ban in the Arctic will go into effectalthough full of exceptions.

The Nord University affirms that "it is worth paying attention" to the fact that, also this January, both total crossings of the route were completed, which represented "the first time that they were carried out at this time of year". The trips departed from ports in the Far East of Asia (Vladivostok in Russia and Tianjin in China) and docked in Murmansk (Russia) 100 kilometers from Norway.

On the one hand, the Audax ship transported a 12,000-ton module for Novatek's natural gas extraction project. "The Audax has completed the voyage well after the traditional close of the Arctic sailing season," the company claimed when certifying the docking of the ship. "A unique journey", described the journey that was assisted by a nuclear icebreaker to cross the waters.

The other ship that crossed the entire NSR in January was the Sevmormut, a nuclear-powered freighter that arrived in Murmansk on February 23 after entering the waters of the Arctic route on January 16.

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