The Norwegian bulk carrier ‘Nordic Barents’ will be the first non Russian cargo ship to use the alternate Arctic route between Europe and China. It started last week from Norway even as a series of accidents in the frigid waters of the north had scientists raising questions on environmental consequences of such voyages. Nevertheless, "We're pretty much going over the top," said John Sanderson, the CEO of the Norwegian iron ore mine.
Carrying a full load of 40,000 tonnes of iron ore, the bulker will save up to two weeks and a couple of hundred thousand dollars by using the northern route from Europe to Asia; the alternative normal route would have been via the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean. Tellingly, the with lower piracy risk by avoiding Somali piracy is stated to be a factor in the decision.
Two German ships did make voyages to Arctic Russia last year, but the Nordic Barents is the first foreign ship that Russia is allowing to pass through without stopping. Rostomflot, the Russian state owned icebreaking company, has earmarked two icebreakers to escort the Nordic Barents for 10 days of the voyage between Novaya Zemlya and the Bering Strait; no doubt the Russians see this as a great business opportunity, though officials are tight lipped on icebreaker or fee costs.
Meanwhile, the receding Arctic ice cap, matching the worst seen on record, has scientists worried. While global warming is being blamed for this phenomenon, there are growing concerns about the increasing willingness of shippers, owners and charterers to send ships through the huge and frozen expanse of northern water. There are also questions that much of the route, used by only domestic Russian vessels, has insufficient emergency facilities or places for refuge.
The polar ice sheet is as big as the U.S. even after the present summer melt, according to experts, and the waters are incompletely charted. They point to the Canadian tanker Nanny that recently ran aground on an uncharted sandbar in the Simson Straits of the Northwest Passage carrying almost 10 million litres of diesel meant for remote Arctic Canadian communities. Although no fuel has leaked from the double-hulled tanker, a Canadian coast guard ship is standing by to assist at the time of this report. The Nanny is the third ship in the last month to run aground in the Canadian Arctic. The cruise ship ‘Clipper Adventurer, ran aground on Aug. 27 on an uncharted rock between Port Epworth and Kugluktuk; it was two days before the 128 passengers could be transferred to an icebreaker and safety ashore. Earlier, another tanker ran aground off Baffin Island before being refloated at a later high tide.
General Manager of Desgagnés Transarctik, operating in the area, says that the problem is that Arctic areas are charted very narrowly. "The charts are reliable. The problem is that you have to be able to stay within [them]. The charts are not complete in a sense that if you are not able to stay within, for whatever reason, you might find yourself very easily in uncharted waters."
These concerns are unlikely to deter commercial managers. CEO Sanderson is quoted in the newswires as saying, “Somebody's got to blaze the trail and prove to the rest of the world that this is a commercially viable route that can be transited quite safely."
The problem, critics say, pointing to the potential for environmental catastrophe if something goes awry in the sensitive Arctic, is that ‘quite’ may not be quite good enough.