Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Tip of a Fast-disappearing Iceberg?: Implications of the opening up of the Northern Sea Route

In September 2009 two ice-strengthened heavy lift vessels of Germany’s Beluga Group – the MV Beluga Fraternity and the MV Beluga Foresight – successfully completed their transit through the Northern Sea Route, known in former times as the Northeast Passage. This event was excitedly billed (by Beluga) as a “world premier voyage” representing the first true commercial transit of this long-sought Arctic waterway. Are global shipping patterns set to be transformed as Arctic routes open up?

Beluga certainly seems to think so as it has announced plans for more (up to six) and larger vessels to use the same route in the summer of 2010. After all, the lure of using Arctic sea lanes is readily understood – using the Northern Sea Route represents a distance saving of almost 40 per cent on the a transit between northern Europe and northeast Asia as compared with the traditional routes using either the Suez or Panama canals. This translates to significant potential savings in terms of transit time and fuel costs (and therefore harmful emissions).

Shorter but better?
A slightly closer look at the pioneering voyages of the German ships does, however, suggest that global shipping patterns are unlikely to be transformed quite yet. In particular, it is noticeable that the two vessels concerned are relatively small being 12,750 dead-weight-ton (dwt) vessels. In contrast “Suezmax” class ships plying more traditional routes between Asia and Europe exceed 200,000dwt. This implies that the vessel the size of one of the Beluga ships would have to make at least 15 return transits of the Northern Sea Route in order to deliver the same volume of cargo as one voyage using a larger vessel by way of the Suez Canal – rather undermining the pure distance savings involved in using the Arctic route. Indeed, the size of vessels operating in the Northern Sea Route is limited by both draft (12.5m) and beam (30m) restrictions dictated by the shallow nature of some of the straits between the Siberian mainland and Arctic islands and the need to follow in the wake of icebreakers respectively.

The ships will comeWhile there are good reasons to conclude that Beluga’s first commercial transit of the Northern Sea Route will lead to a radical realignment in global shipping patterns in the short term, this is by no means the end of the story. As the Arctic region continues to warm and sea ice cover thins and retreats, the summer sailing season (currently around 6-8 weeks) will extend, passage will become more reliable and less prone to unpredictable delays while the significant potential savings involved in terms of transit time and distance will remain seductive. The passage of the Beluga vessels through the Northern Sea Route highlights the fact that navigation in the Arctic is very much on the increase and that interest in inter-oceanic transit routes via the Arctic is burgeoning. This, in turn, suggests that, despite considerable recent progress, greater efforts will be required on the part of the Arctic littoral states to manage and govern these developments and, in particular, enhance their surveillance, enforcement and search and rescue capabilities to protect and preserve the remote, environmentally fragile but increasingly used Arctic marine spaces involved.

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