Mariners have known about short cuts to the Pacific via the Arctic for a long time. The Northern Sea Route (NSR), north of Siberia, was discovered 300 years ago, and the Northwest Passage (NWP) has been on the map for more than a century.
Although these routes are much shorter than the traditional trading routes from Europe and the eastern US to the Pacific, until recently they were only navigable by specialised ships. They have not been considered commercially viable until now.
The world is warming, and over the last several decades climate change has begun to significantly change the game for vessel navigation. Alarmingly, global warming is not evenly distributed over the globe. In the Arctic, warming is at a much higher level than the global average. Svalbard, Norway, for example, is experiencing a temperature increase that is 6°C higher than the global average.
In September 1980, Arctic ice covered some 8M km2. In 2012, Arctic ice cover dropped to less than half that area – 3.4M km2 – the lowest ever recorded. The reduction in Arctic ice cover is relatively linear (see image below, click for larger version), and the trend means the NSR and the NWR are now navigable for part of the year, every year.
Peaking with 71 transits in 2013, the Northern Sea Route to the north of Russia has been more popular for commercial transits than its counterpart in the Americas, but NSR transits declined after 2013 and were down to 25 in 2017. Nevertheless, due to the drop in Arctic sea ice and enormous amounts of oil, natural gas and various metal ores, the Siberian coast has seen a significant increase in shipping activities.
Decreasing ice coverage in the Arctic would open a larger window for transits. A report published in the journal Nature Climate Change in June 2018 predicts that, even if we manage to keep temperature change within the parameters of the 2°C temperature increase as embedded in the Paris Agreement, we will experience a completely ice-free Arctic during the Northern hemisphere's summer months within this century.
So how would an ice-free Arctic summer impact shipping?
As of now, vessels cut off 40% of the distance travelled between Rotterdam and Yokohama by using the Northern Sea Route. An ice-free Arctic would likely mean 50% or more in miles saved over traditional routes.
Shipping could save millions of tonne-miles and huge amounts of fuel if the predicted growth of the NSR's navigable window holds true, an outcome that would be good for shipping’s global greenhouse gas emissions account.
Could we then conclude that the melting of Arctic ice, due to global warming, will be a means to mitigate global warming due to reduced CO2 emissions from shipping?
As ironic as that outcome would be, it is not that simple.
One alarm raised by some green NGOs that is supported by many nations including some of the Arctic littoral states, is that shipping’s emissions of black carbon (BC) in the Arctic is speeding up the melting of Arctic ice – sea ice as well as glacial ice. Black carbon is basically soot emanating from incomplete engine combustion and is generally believed to be more related to the combustion of heavy fuel oil (HFO) than that of lighter distillates. It is also related to the condition of the engine as well as to the engine load.
Scientists have predicted negative consequences from the rapid melting of Arctic sea ice and the Arctic glaciers that will be felt globally. Melting will result in rising sea levels globally, threatening the existence of many island states. More open water means further absorption of the sun's warmth and heating of the Arctic Ocean — an accelerating cycle. Many large cities will need to invest in expensive climate change mitigation enterprises, such as increasing the height and extent of dykes and barriers. Two obvious examples of the threat to low-lying cities are New Orleans, which was inundated during Hurricane Katrina and New York and New Jersey which faced huge storm surges from Hurricane Sandy. Rising sea levels and a likely increase in frequency and violence of hurricanes offers frightening scnarios for low-lying cities and countries.
Massive melting of Arctic ice might also, according to some scientists, force the Gulf Stream to take a more southerly course, which will result in a much colder northern Europe. So even as climate change produces an average increase in global temperatures, there are likely to be regions that will experience colder weather and climate.
Ban on heavy fuel oil in the Arctic?
Last year Canada and other states proposed that IMO should commence work on mitigating the risks of use and carriage of HFO as fuel by ships in the Arctic. The European Parliament has broadly supported this move by adopting a resolution calling for a ban on the use of HFO in Arctic waters.
Prior to that, in October 2016, the IMO at MEPC 70 decided that from 1 January 2020, all ships operating outside emission control areas (ECAs) must not burn fuel oil with a sulphur content above 0.5% (by mass). When that rule was adopted in 2008, it was believed that such future fuel oil would be distillate, either marine gas oil or marine diesel oil.
One could then infer that the problem of carriage of HFO in the Arctic would be resolved by 2020.
But, again, it is not that simple.
In connection with the 0.1% sulphur limit in ECAs in 2015, the world saw a number of new fuels that did not fall under the traditional definition of distillate fuel. It is expected that the 2020 global cap of 0.5% sulphur limit will see the introduction of many new fuels. Some of these are expected to be based on desulphurised HFO derived from sweet crude, others might be blends of HFO with low-sulphur products. It could even be new oil products that the world has not yet seen.
It should thus be evident that a carriage ban only on HFO as fuel might not be the silver bullet.
The issue was discussed at the latest MEPC (72) in April 2018 where a number of potential problems were identified. These include possible health impacts on Arctic communities and the lack of a clear definition of HFO in this particular context. It will be on the agenda for the next MEPC (73) in October, and members have been urged to submit concrete proposals for methodologies to govern an appropriate impact assessment process. The Pollution Prevention and Response (PPR) subcommittee of MEPC will then be tasked to consider the topic and produce text as appropriate.
Arctic navigation is covered by IMO’s Polar Code, setting out minimum structural and operational requirements, basically adding a layer upon SOLAS, Marpol and other international conventions. The Code took effect on 1 January 2017.
A couple of questions remain unanswered:
Will a possible ban on HFO in Arctic waters have a real effect after 2020?
Will the Polar Code be able to exclude ‘bounty hunters’ and leave the Arctic trade to the experienced operators?
Master mariner and naval architect Niels Bjørn Mortensen is one of the industry’s pre-eminent regulatory experts. His has headed BIMCO’s marine department, served as Maersk Maritime Technology’s director of regulatory affairs and chaired the Danish Shipowners’ Association technical committee. He also sits at the Danish Maritime and Trade Court as an expert judge.