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Danish shipping firm tests Russian Arctic alternative to Suez Canal route

Olga Maltseva, AFP | Maersk's new ice-class container vessel, Venta Maersk, arrives at the port of Saint Petersburg, Russia, on September 28, 2018.

The “Venta”, a Danish container ship loaded with Russian fish and South Korean electronics, arrived Thursday in Saint Petersburg, becoming the first container ship to navigate the northern Arctic as the ice pack melts and recedes.

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Maersk’s 200 metres, 42,000 tonne ice-class vessel was built to navigate in extreme weather and in waters as cold as -25°C. It embarked on its trial journey on August 23 from the far eastern Russian port of Vladivostok, completing the Arctic route in five weeks with the help of nuclear icebreakers.

Until now, no ship of its size has navigated the full route along the northern Siberian coast. Thanks to global warming and ice melt, the route – once navigable only by small ships and for just a few weeks every summer – is accessible from July to October. Sea ice in the Arctic has shrunk dramatically in just a few decades, losing almost half of its surface area.

Even so, the conditions for navigation remain extremely difficult and the need for nuclear icebreakers represents a significant cost for ship owners. To navigate in the Arctic, the ships must also be equipped with a sonar to help avoid icebergs and whales.

Commercial interests

Despite the constraints, the route is of significant interest to countries like China, Canada and Russia, whose territories extend past the Arctic Circle. The route allows ships to cut the journey to European ports by two weeks compared to the Suez Canal route.

President Vladimir Putin called in September for “all interested parties to develop this promising route”.

In its draft budget for 2019-2021, Russia plans to invest 40 billion rubles (€526 million) into the development of the maritime shortcut. This includes investing in port infrastructure and nuclear icebreaker construction in order to boost ship traffic.

Danish shipping company Maersk told AFP that the one-off trial crossing presented a "unique opportunity to gain operational experience in a new area and to test vessel systems and crew capabilities".

However, the company “currently does not see the Northern Sea Route as a viable commercial alternative to existing east-west routes”.

But that may change soon. Russian energy expert Ruslan Tankayev believes the Northern Sea Route could be passable all year round by 2050.

He said that global warming is a "terrible evil" for countries such as Africa and Latin America, but added it could provide opportunities for Russia and Canada.

The route, he added, is not only several thousand kilometres shorter than passing through the Suez Canal but also much safer with virtually no piracy risks.

A fragile ecosystem

The success of this first expedition could open the route to others, notably companies interested in exploiting Arctic oil deposits. Environmental protection groups and experts have already rung the alarm about the risks associated with increased maritime traffic and oil drilling in the region.

"It's important to know what kind of fuel will be used," said Greenpeace activist Rashid Alimov.

An accidental oil spill would be very dangerous as there is practically no infrastructure to treat the consequences and oil stays in the environment longer in cold weather, Alimov said.

In March 1989, the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska created an oil slick that devastated local fauna and the indigenous populations who depended on fishing.

In an attempt to anticipate the environmental risks inherent in opening the Arctic route, the 170 member countries of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) signed a “Polar Code” that entered into force in January 2017.

Among the measures taken by the IMO to protect the arctic ecosystem are a total prohibition of any discharge into the sea of sewage, garbage or hydrocarbon waste. It also calls for “measures to be taken to minimize the risk of invasive aquatic species through ships’ ballast water [a reservoir that when filled or evacuated provides stability for the ship] and biofouling”.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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