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Taming the Arctic sea route

Posted to Taming the Arctic sea route (by on February 13, 2012

The North Sea Route could address several issues plaguing shipping and seafaring


Global warming is doing a lot of good! Shipping is one such beneficiary. The Arctic, where the action is likely to shift with the ice cap getting liquidated is set to make the North Pole hospitable not just for Santa Claus but also for shipping and seafaring. The opportunities are immense and all the chances of putting shipping back on the back of the economic boom.

The prospect of cutting thousands of miles off their routes by sailing round the north of Canada and Russia and the news that last year 18 ships have already undertaken the voyages seems to be fast cutting ice with many shipping companies. The virtual ice free crossing for 3 to 5 months of the year has created the possibility of diverting the 18,000 ships that cross the Suez and risking lives, ships and cargo to the belligerence of pirates.

Recently while talking to a large gathering of master mariners, marine officers and engineers at the Maritime Spectrum 2012 organized by the Company of Master Mariners of India, Capt Binod Dubey, Claims Executive of SKULD, Hong Kong and author of ‘Ice Navigation Managing Cold Climate Risks’ gave a detailed account on “Arctic route – Commercial visibility and challenges” which he described as the New Trade Link between Europe and Asia.  

“Taking the Northern Sea Route (NSR) can reduce the voyage time for ships from the estimated 40 days to just 22.5 days fetching a time saving of 17.5 days @ 28.2 MT of fuel,” explained Capt  Binod Dubey. “Going by today’s fuel cost this amounts to a saving of $ 300,000.  If the tonnage is larger the cost works out much less. Environmentally this NSR turns out to be more beneficial as there is less NOx emitted which is around 50 tons, CO2 is down by 1557 tons and Sox by 35 tons.”

However there are maritime challenges that need to be dealt with especially the harsh natural conditions resulting in ice damage, ice accretion and waiting for the ice free window period. Operationally the investment needed when it comes to building adequate ice-classified cargo vessel could pose a heavy burden.  For example a VLCC having ice notation IA will have 16% extra steel weight compared to one without ice strengthening.  An equally big problem is for Russia to muster the political and economic strength needed to uphold a stable, well-functioning infrastructure along the NSR, the most crucial task being to maintain the capacity of the Russian ice-breaker fleet. This has also prevented Russia from establishing a stable, competitive tariff regime.

There are also safety issues and the need for certification by the Russian administration. For this they come aboard the ship and survey the vessel and give their clearance. Then you have a Russian Ice Pilot on board to direct the ship through this North Sea Route.

Yet Arctic is too hot to be ignored according to Capt Dubey. It holds up to 30 per cent of world’s undiscovered gas and 13 per cent of its undiscovered oil. Greenland area alone holds an estimated reserve of 50 billion barrel oil.     

Speaking to MARPRO Mik Stoustrup, M. D. of ID Wallem Shipmanagement Limited talked about his two ice class vessels trading in the Baltic. His first ships Nordic Barents made a trip through the NSR from Norway to Qingdao last year carrying iron ore from Norway. “It was escorted by two atomic ice breakers one in the front and one behind in compliance with the Russian regulations.  It saved us 13 to 14 days. The cost of the ice breakers was same as the cost of transiting through the Suez Canal. Besides, the insurance is more. But the charterer saved $ 200,000 on one trip alone.