A Russian cargo ship has crossed the Arctic for the first time without the need of an ice-breaker.
The ship named Christophe de Margerie carried liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Hammerfest in Norway to Boryeong in South Korea in 19 days. This is 30% quicker than what it would normally take a cargo of this type to reach its destination via the Suez Canal.
The tanker was built to take advantage of the diminishing Arctic ice, which has witnessed historic thawing levels. The ship has been fitted with its own internal ice-breaker, removing the need for an external device to forge a path through the ice.
The route from Siberia to the Pacific is still closed to conventional shipping for much of the year. However, the feat carried out by the Christophe de Margerie will encourage many shippers that a northern route can be established year round. Fifteen other ships similar to the Russian tanker are expected to be built.
A northern shipping passage could have major implications for geopolitics. The Suez Canal is currently one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. It allows trade between the northern Atlantic and the northern Indian Ocean via a route through Egypt. The canal carries ships from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. This cuts short the distance of shipping routes by approximately 7,000km.
Since the Suez Canal officially opened in 1860, it has been the source of political conflict. Whoever controls the canal, controls much of the trade between Europe and Asia. During the First World War, the Ottoman army attempted to seize the canal from British control. During the Second World War, Axis powers once again attempted to take hold of the shipping route as part of their North African campaign. The Suez Crisis erupted in the 1950s, due to Western fears that Egypt was becoming too close to the Soviet Union. Israel invaded the Sinai peninsula due to their ships being banned from the route. As a result, the first UN Peacekeeping Mission was established to keep the canal’s operation in neutral hands. This peacekeeping group still operates in this region until this day.
Historically, Russia has always been interested in establishing trade routes to the south of them. These ambitions were believed to have been a catalyst for the First World War as they supported independent Slavic states in the Balkan region. Friendly nations such as Serbia would have allowed them much-desired routes to the Mediterranean. In modern times, the Russian-Georgian war of 2008 was spurred on by Russian interest in Georgia’s border with the Black Sea.
Environmentalist fear the worst from a shipping route in the Arctic. Maritime transports emit around 1000 million tonnes of CO2 each year. That accounts for approximately 2.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Shipping levels are expected to increase from anywhere between 50% and 250% by 2050. A trade route through the Arctic could have potentially disastrous effects on the already melting ice cap.
The company behind the Christophe de Margerie have praised its eco-friendly ship. They state that their tanker runs off the liquid natural gas which it is transporting, reducing emissions by almost 90%.
Nonetheless, the fact that the Arctic is now warm enough for shipping is not a good indication for the future. A report released in May 2017 believed that the Arctic could be a sea that is largely ice free by summer 2030. Thawing permafrost holds about 50% of the world methane, which would be released into the atmosphere, worsening an already dangerous situation.