Near-record Ice Melt in Arctic Clears Northern Sea Shipping Route

By MarEx 2011-08-03 16:48:47

Russia’s environmental agency has reported that a near-record rate of Arctic ice melt has opened shipping lanes fit for cargo traffic between Europe and Asia.

As of early August, Federal Hydrometeorological and Environmental Monitoring Service said that the Arctic ice cover was declining at a record low, and has opened an expansive area for the Northern Sea Route that would provide largely icebreaker-free shipping.  They are concluding that the ice extent has declined by 56% in many areas leaving the sea open for easy sailing through September.  The ice retreat has the Northern Sea Route over Russia opened earlier than ever before and making shipping between Europe and the Bering Strait less complicated for this time of year.

Shipping in the Arctic is never such an easy task, however at least one Belgium-owned tanker ship has successfully hauled 70,000 tons of oil condensate over the Arctic to a port in China through the Bering Strait.  The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) reported that the Belgium company of the tanker plans to send 6-7 more ships through this Northern Sea Route over the summer.  Russian icebreakers also plan to escort up to 15 vessels before the summer ends.

PHOTO CAPTION: A graphical comparison between the Northern Sea Route (blue) and a southern route (red).

The Northern Sea Route is about one-third shorter than the Rotterdam-Yokohama route through the Suez Canal for Russian and European shippers to access Asia, which gives shippers lower fuel costs and boasts a shorter voyage. 

After the rapid ice melts in July, by the end of the month the retreat was slowing and halted the near-record breaking rates due to a series of low pressure systems and storms that caused a decline in the melting and left the season still behind the record-minimum year of 2007.  The NSIDC said that this does not mean good news, though.  They explained that the turnaround in weather likely pushed the ice apart into a thinner, but more extensive cover of ice.