Specifically, and according to the NASA Earth Observatory, the mean center of shipping activity moved 300km north and east over a seven-year span. As a result, a growing number of vessels are sailing in Arctic waters. Cargo volumes on the Northern Sea Route (NSR) increased by nearly 40% to 9.7m tons in 2017, the biggest annual volume ever, according to the Russian Federal Agency for Maritime and River Transport. This was expected to rise to 40m tons by 2022, reflecting the development of oil and gas fields, and up to between 70m and 80m tons by 2030.  

Northern Sea Route vs Northwest Passage 

At this point it would be essential that we clarify the difference between Northern Sea Route and Northwest Passage. The first one, is referring to a shipping route running along the Russian Arctic coast from the Kara Sea, along Siberia, to the Bering Strait. The entire route lies in Arctic waters and within Russia's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Remarkable is that, parts are free of ice for only two months per year. The overall route on Russia's side of the Arctic between North Cape and the Bering Strait has been called the Northeast Passage, analogous to the Northwest Passage on the Canada side. While the Northeast Passage includes all the East Arctic seas and connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Northern Sea Route does not include the Barents Sea, and it therefore does not reach the Atlantic. 

4 big shipping names sailed the Arctic Routes during 2018 

  • Maersk 

September 2018: On September 11, Atomflot's nuclear icebreaker "50 Years of Victory" escorted the container vessel Venta Maersk; the first ever container ship on an Arctic route, travelling from the East to Northern Europe along the Northern Sea Route. The nuclear icebreaker provided a safe passage for Venta Maersk from the East Siberian Sea to the Laptev Sea. 

  • ESL Shipping 

September 2018: ESL Shipping received the bulk carrier 'Viikki'; an LNG-fueled vessel which, along with its sister ship 'Haaga', will travel to the Baltic Sea via the Northern Sea Route. Viikki will head from the shipyard to Japan, from where it will arrive fully laden at the Baltic Sea approximately at the end of October. The plan is that both vessels will travel to the Baltic Sea via the Northern Sea Route. 

  • Cosco 

September 2018: ‘Tian En' managed to sail out of the Arctic Circle successfully, completing its maiden voyage within the circle. Tian En's maiden voyage started after it sailed through the Bering Strait on August 17, having left from Lianyungang Port in China on August 4. The ship travelled the Northern Sea Route along the coast of Russia, between the Pacific and the Atlantic 

  • Russian Sovcomflot (SCF Group) 

July 2018: The icebreaking LNG carrier, Christophe de Margerie, crossed the Northern Sea Route in a new record time for a merchant ship without icebreaker support. 'Christophe de Margerie' is the first in a series of 15 icebreaking LNG carriers ordered for the Yamal LNG, to transport LNG year-round in the challenging ice conditions of the Kara Sea and Gulf of Ob. When completed, she became the world’s first icebreaking LNG carrier. Her cargo capacity is 172,600 cubic metres. The ship completed her first loading of LNG at the Port of Sabetta, on 8 December 2017. 

The NSR may be a more direct path, but that doesn’t make it smoother. The route has no transshipment ports to allow the efficient transfer of goods, and has other important operating constraints. Parts of the route are too shallow for big container ships and issues such as how to contain an oil spill on ice or where to evacuate the crew in an emergency are unresolved.

the Wall Street Journal reports.

The challenges ahead 

Ice Melting 

According to US National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC), due to global warming Arctic sea ice hit a record low for January, while ice in the Bering Sea reported its lowest levels in recorded history. 

A research, conducted by the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg found that more Arctic sea ice is entering the North Atlantic Ocean, increasing the level of hazard for ships in late spring. Arctic sea ice blocked normally open areas of ocean around Newfoundland in May and June 2017; the ice cover trapped many ships and even sunk some boats when it punctured hulls. 

NASA’s Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) successfully launched from California earlier in September, embarking on its mission to measure the ice of Earth’s frozen reaches 'with unprecedented accuracy'. With this mission, NASA seeks to explore remote polar regions in a bid to understand ice changes on Earth. 

The Arctic ban on heavy fuel oil 

As mentioned above, the arctic summer sea ice is approximately half the extent it was in the 1970s and half the volume, while the region’s strongest sea ice has broken up twice this year, for the first time on record.  

The use of heavy fuel oil in the Arctic not only increases the risk of devastating oil spills, but it also generates higher emissions of black carbon, which exacerbate the melting of both sea and glacier ice. 

This April, IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee agreed to move forward on consideration of an Arctic ban on heavy fuel oil. The meeting directed a sub-committee (PPR6) to develop a ban on heavy fuel oil use and carriage for use by ships in the Arctic. 

Earlier this year, the Clean Arctic Alliance challenged Maersk to come clean on what fuel the 'Venta Maersk' will use when crossing Arctic waters. Moreover, commenting on the occasion that the Cosco owned cargo ship 'Tian En' managed to sail out of the Arctic Circle successfully, they also called COSCO to reveal the nature of the fuel that the Tian’en has used and carried through Arctic waters.