A Russian tanker has successfully crossed the Arctic without an icebreaker for the first time. In a sign that climate change is truly upon us, the tanker crossed from Norway to South Korea in just 19 days. The journey across the Arctic is normally one fraught with danger. Thick damaging ice and rapidly changeable weather conditions made moving cargo through the area a logistical nightmare. But those days may be behind us now. The tanker took just six days to pass through the Russian Arctic section -- a journey 30 percent faster than the traditional route through the Suez Canal. Due to the current rate of melting sea ice, researchers anticipate that ships will be able to cross the Arctic during the summer months by 2040 and move through the channel all year round by 2100.
No more need for additional icebreaker ships
Most ships that pass through the Arctic need to do so with the aid of an icebreaker. This can be a smaller ship that travels in front of the tanker, crushing the ice and creating a channel for the bigger ship to pass through. A breaker ship has a rounded structure rather than a pointy hull that allows it to glide over the ice sheet. The ship's weight crushes the sheets allowing the ship behind it to pass through. The smooth hull of the icebreaker pushes the broken ice aside which reduces the risk of damage to the tanker's hull.
Shipping lanes to open up all year round
In the case of the Russian Tanker, the ship was equipped with an inbuilt icebreaker hull that allowed it to break through ice around 1.2 meters (nearly 4 ft) thick without the need of an additional escorting icebreaker. A spokesperson for the ship's owner, Sovcomflot, said,
"Previously there was only a window of navigation from our summer to autumn, but this ship will be able to sail westwards from Sabetta which is the Yamal energy port, all year round and eastwards from July to December. Before the northern sea route was only open for four months and you had to have ice-breakers – so it's a significant development."
New Ship Design Will Reduce Impact on the Environment
The $300 million USD tanker will be used to deliver gas from the Vladimir Putin-supported Liquified Natural Gas facility on the Yamal Peninsula. Environmentalists have expressed concerns about the new shipping route in the pristine Arctic, but the shipbuilders have countered claims by stressing the green credentials of the ship. The specially designed tanker can run on the liquified natural gas it’s carrying. This fuel source reduces its sulfur oxide emissions by 90 percent.
Arctic Ice Loss is Irreversible
Perhaps more worrying though is the loss of ice in the Arctic. Ice is melting faster there than any other place in the world. Simon Boxall, from the University of Southampton Oceanography department, said that investing in these new ships and routes was a ‘safe bet’. He says,
“Even if we stopped greenhouse emissions tomorrow, the acceleration in the loss of Arctic ice is unlikely to be reversed."