A tanker containing liquefied natural gas has been able to cross the Arctic in winter without an icebreaker, with the region’s ice sheets melting due to global warming.
Another LNG tanker had achieved the same deed in the summer of 2017, once again without an icebreaker escort. But the Eduard Toll was able to do it in even harsher winter conditions because it is thought that the Arctic sea ice is both thinning and shrinking with time.
The commercial ship Eduard Toll left its port in South Korea in December for another port in northern Russia, before finishing the journey in Montoir, France.
“The people and passion one needs for an ice passage like this cannot be underestimated,” Mark Kremin, the president and chief executive of Teekay, the shipping company Eduard Toll belongs to, said.
Each year, the ice in the Arctic sea normally reaches a maximum extent between February and April. The maximum extent has dropped by approximately 2.8 percent per decade since satellites have started continuously measuring sea ice in 1979, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, supported by NASA.
Our warming atmosphere and warming oceans are causing the southern edges of the ice to retreat. It is estimated that we will keep seeing smaller wintertime maximum levels of ice as a result. Since 1979, a winter sea ice cover more than twice the size of Texas has been lost.
Linked to climate change
The Arctic sea ice extent reached a new level this January. There’s a clear link to the anthropogenic climate change here.
Regional weather variations can cause minor variations in the winter sea ice levels however the overall trend is clearly one of a cryospheric retreat. This means there are going to be other tankers making it through the Arctic Ocean in the height of the winter relatively easily.
China has just released a white paper plotting out a “Polar Silk Road”, calling for greater concentration and international cooperation on shipping routes through the Arctic as the ice fades away.
The white paper, noted that as a result of global warming, the Arctic shipping routes are likely to become important transport routes for international trade, according to the Financial Times.
The Chinese government emphasized that environmental protection of the region was important but it also expressed an interest to explore and utilize any resources that may be buried under the sea. These resources are estimated to include oil and gas reserves.
Environmentalists show concern
With the northern sea route being considerably shorter for many trade links between Europe and Asia, shipping companies have also been investing in ships that are able to break through the thinning polar ice to sail through areas of the northern oceans.
Teekay has been investing in six ships to travel to its liquefied natural gas project in Yamal, northern Russia. It has been suggested that European routes to Asia will become 10 days faster via the Arctic rather than its alternatives by the middle of the 21st century, and 13 days faster by the end of the century.
Environmentalists and scientists have however expressed concerns over the opening of the northern route and exploitation of polar resources.
The EU and nine of the world’s major fishing nations announced in December last year an agreement to ban fishing in the Arctic Ocean for the next 16 years. Environmentalists and scientists welcomed this, pointing out the fragility of polar ecosystems, and the need to preserve them instead of exploiting the resources made available by melting sea ice.