Container Shipping in the Arctic: Why (Not) Now?
A.P. Moller Maersk has always been an industry front runner when speaking about the exploration and adoption of innovative technologies and trends.
Therefore, it is safe to say that the Danish shipping major has dared to go places where others haven’t, which is definitely the case with its latest test run through the Northern Sea Route.
Even though the trip is of exploratory nature, if a company like Maersk is exploring the commercial viability of the route, this could indicate a pick up in the route’s attractiveness for container shipping, as Arctic waters have so far been used mostly by tankers and, most recently, by passenger ships.
Taking into account that container shipping is currently looking into the ways of boosting profitability and cutting costs especially for fuel, the lane would be very attractive as it shortens the duration of the trip from Northeast Europe to Asia, by around 24 percent, when compared to the Suez Canal.
Hence, container shipping companies would be able to save time and money, assuming they had already invested in ice-class ships.
Nevertheless, there are numerous constraints to consider, including the shipping lane’s availability and capacity.
The melting of the ice in the Arctic Sea makes the Northern Sea Route, which connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, partly free of ice during the summer months. Even though the frozen ice sheet is absent, there will still be broken off ice sheets in various sizes in the Arctic Sea during the ice-free periods. Therefore, ships using the Northern Sea Route require ice breaker support, which might prove to be costly.
Maersk’s ship will also be escorted by an ice-breaker through the route.
However, various projections indicate that the ice-free periods are likely to increase in the upcoming years making the area longer available for commercial shipping. In the long-term, it could be something worth looking into for container shipping companies.
Capacity-wise, the route can be no alternative to the Suez Canal, as it can accommodate ships of up to 4,500 TEU, while the Suez Canal can accommodate much larger vessels, including ultra large container vessels.
As such, the industry agrees that for the time being the lane is more of a seasonal complement rather than a replacement to the Suez Canal.
Commercial drivers aside, the environmental aspect of the route is very important to consider, due to the lack of available infrastructure in the area because of its remoteness to deal with a potential oil spill and shipping incidents.
To that end, in April 2018, the International Maritime Organization’s Marine Environment Protection Committee agreed to move forward on consideration of a Arctic ban on heavy fuel oil.
The meeting directed a sub-committee (PPR6) – which will meet in early 2019 – to develop a ban on heavy fuel oil use and carriage for use by ships in the Arctic, “on the basis of an assessment of the impacts” and “on an appropriate timescale”.
In view of the above, Maersk said it would use ultra-low sulphur fuel throughout the voyage.
“With this week’s news that the Arctic’s strongest sea ice has broken up twice this year, for the first time on record, using heavy fuel oil to power shipping in the Arctic not only increases the risk of oil spills, but also generates emissions of black carbon, which exacerbate the melting of both sea and glacier ice in the Arctic region. By taking the lead in the Arctic, Maersk could lead a vanguard of companies shipping commercial goods that move towards clean and renewable forms of propulsion for shipping worldwide,” Clean Arctic Alliance Lead Advisor Sian Prior said.
Maersk’s ice-class ship Venta Maersk departed Vladivostok earlier today heading for the Northern Sea Route. Maersk said earlier that the ship’s trip would last for over a month. The ship is expected to pass the Bering Strait on or around September 1, 2018 and its planned arrival in Saint Petersburg is set for the end September.
World Maritime News Staff; Image Courtesy: Illustration/ U.S. Geological Survey under public domain license