Container ships using the Northern Sea Route across the top of the world can cut the length of voyages by 40% compared with travelling via the Suez Canal, the Arctic Council says.

However, while in summer the Northern Sea Route is more accessible, in winter it is treacherous and can only be kept open with the assistance of specialist icebreaker ships.

Eduard Toll crossing the Northern Sea Route
Image: Teekay

That is, until the Teekay’s Eduard Toll vessel set out from South Korea in December heading for the Sabetta liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal in northern Russia.

The tanker, which is named after Russian geologist and explorer Baron Eduard Toll, is designed to break through ice up to 1.8m thick, and is said to be the first ever ship to tackle the Northern Sea Route during winter unassisted.

Image: The Economist

The journey was captured by the ship’s crew in the timelapse video below, and represents a major step forward in international shipping.

Polar opposites

The Eduard Toll is part of a fleet of six such ships commissioned to serve the Yamal LNG project in Russia, with easier access to the route undoubtedly paving the way for increased trade in the region.

This is something other shipping firms are racing to exploit. In August last year, Russian oil and gas shipping firm Sovcomflot also tackled the Northern Sea Route without assistance.

According to news site Climate Home, the ship, named after former Total CEO Christophe de Margerie, navigated the route in under a week, completing its journey from Norway to South Korea in 19 days.

While the Russian vessel completed its voyage during the Arctic summer, Sovcomflot says that thanks to its ability to cut through ice over two-metres-thick, it, like the Eduard Toll, can sail across the top of the world during winter.

Sovcomflot claims the Christophe de Margerie can sail along the Northern Sea Route westward from Sabetta all-year-round and eastward for six months of the year (from July to December). During each voyage, the vessel can carry 172,600 m3 of LNG.

The Christophe de Margerie tackled the NSR during summer 2017
Image: Sovcomflot

Arctic sea ice in retreat

Unfortunately, the increasing ease with which ships can cross the Northern Sea Route during winter points directly toward the alarming effects of climate change.

The volume of Arctic sea ice hit record lows in January, according to the National Snow & Ice Data Center (NSIDC), which tracks sea ice extent around the world.

The monthly average Arctic sea ice extent of around 13 million square kilometres was recorded some 1.36 million square kilometres below the 1981 to 2010 average, and 110,000 square kilometres below the previous record low set in 2017.

What’s more, the Arctic Council, a scientific policy group of the eight countries with territory in the Arctic Circle, says that over the past 30 years, the minimum coverage of summer ice has fallen by half while its volume has fallen by three-quarters.

While thinning ice volumes does present opportunities for increasing trade, perhaps the drawbacks outweigh the benefits.