LONDON (Reuters) – As melting sea ice opens the Arctic to navigation, more ships are plying the loosely managed polar waters, bringing increasing quantities of climate-warming pollution, a Reuters analysis of brand-new shipping and fuel-consumption data shows.

FILE IMAGE: Chunks of ice float inside of meltwater pools on top of the Helheim glacier near Tasiilaq, Greenland, June 19,2018 REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Image

Traffic through the icy region’s busiest lane along the Siberian coast increased 58?tween 2016 and2019 In 2015, ships made 2,694 voyages on the Northern Sea Route, according to information gathered by researchers from the Centre for High North Logistics at Norway’s Nord University.

The trade is driven by products manufacturers– primarily in Russia, China and Canada– sending iron ore, oil, melted natural gas (LNG) and other fuels through Arctic waters.

Even the COVID-19 pandemic, which has actually substantially slowed shipping worldwide as supply chains have been interfered with, has not avoided traffic increasing on the Arctic artery. Ships made 935 voyages in the very first half of 2020, up to completion of June, compared with 855 in the exact same period last year, the data programs.

The boost in shipping is a worry for the environment. As those heavy ships burn fuel, they launch climate-warming co2 along with black soot. That soot blankets nearby ice and snow, absorbing solar radiation rather than reflecting it back out of the environment, which worsens warming in the area.

See graphic on the Arctic’s melting ice, shipping lanes and pollution: 2EuNoiA

The Arctic has actually already warmed a minimum of twice as quick as the remainder of the world over the last three decades. With the region’s warming rate increasing recently, federal governments are getting ready for a future of open Arctic waters.

” The driving issue is the reduction of Arctic sea ice and the potential for more shipping,” stated Sian Prior, lead adviser with the Clean Arctic Alliance. “We are currently seeing that occur.”

LNG tankers make up the largest percentage of traffic on the Northern Sea Path. They alone burned 239,000 tonnes of fuel in 2019, versus only 6,000 tonnes in 2017, according to formerly unpublished information gathered by the non-profit International Council on Clean Transportation and shared with Reuters.


The Northern Sea Path, which traces the coasts of Siberia and Norway, is the region’s busiest artery. It permits freight ships to conserve at least 10 days cruising in between Europe and Asia, shipping specialists estimate.

The path has to do with 6,000 nautical miles shorter than sailing through Africa, and 2,700 nautical miles much shorter than cruising through the Suez Canal.

That shortcut drew ships to make the 2,694 voyages in 2019, up from 2,022 in 2018, 1,908 in 2017 and 1,705 in 2016, according to Nord University’s Centre for High North Logistics. Those trips are made each year by simply 200-300 ships.

This year, abnormally warm weather over northern Russia triggered an early retreat of sea ice from Siberia.

That heatwave, which scientists have actually connected to climate change, had opened up the Northern Sea Path by the second half of July, marking the earliest total thaw of that location yet taped, scientists at the University of Colorado Stone’s National Snow and Ice Data Center say.

As summertime heat diminishes the sea ice further, traffic is anticipated to become even heavier.

Last year, September was the area’s busiest month in terms of the variety of ships navigating the path, with 34 vessels passing though compared with 29 in August, according to information from shipping intelligence platform MarineTraffic.

Traffic beyond the Northern Sea Path is also increasing.

A total of 1,628 ships went into the Arctic area, outside that route, in 2019, up 25%from 2013, a research study by the intergovernmental Arctic Council working group revealed.

” We have actually seen consistent development (in shipping) over the last a number of years,” said Kjell Stokvik, handling director of the Centre for High North Logistics at Nord University. This trend will continue as long as there is need for fuel and mineral cargoes throughout the worldwide market, he added.

Russia in particular is driving trade through the region by developing energy and mineral projects in the Arctic, Stokvik said. President Vladimir Putin has actually set a target of transferring 80 million tonnes of freight every year via the Northern Sea Path by 2025, more than two times what it ships today.


Also of issue for environmentalists is the threat of fuel spills in Arctic waters, where the harsh conditions make clean-up efforts particularly tough and spills could have disastrous effect on sensitive ecosystems.

The 1989 crude oil spill by the Exxon Valdez tanker off southern Alaska spread out for months over 1,300 miles (2,100 km) of coastal wilderness, killing marine animals and plants throughout Prince William Sound.

The mishap, considered among the worst human-caused environmental disasters, resulted in new guidelines requiring double-hulled ships in the area.

However while Antarctic waters are protected by rigid policies, including a restriction on heavy-grade oil embraced in 2011 – regardless of no freight moving through those turbulent southern waters – the guidelines for cruising the Arctic are far looser.

Waters at both poles are governed by the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Polar Code, and ships are “encouraged” to avoid using or bring heavy fuel oil in the Arctic.

The IMO is promoting a complete ban on both the use and carriage of heavy fuel oil through the Arctic by2024 “The method is to act to reduce any potential negative (environmental) impact,” an IMO spokeswoman told Reuters.

Environmentalists note, however, that the draft rules being worked out by member states currently include a provision to exempt ships flagged to nations with Arctic coastlines while running in those waters up until 2029.

That exemption would end up applying to some of today’s most active Arctic shippers, including Russia and Canada. Such “big loopholes” would make the policy “essentially useless”, stated Prior, of the Tidy Arctic Alliance.

” A considerable amount – most likely three-quarters or more – of the shipping presently using the Arctic will not require to apply the ban up until July 1, 2029, if it remains as presently drafted,” Prior stated.

When asked about whether such exceptions would weaken the proposed policy, the IMO spokeswoman stated: “These are decisions made by the member states following conversation in the appropriate fora.”

Reporting by Jonathan Saul; Graphic by Michael Ovaska; Editing by Katy Daigle and Pravin Char

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Marco Bitran
Husband and father of two children under age 5, Marco also enjoys walks in nature, squash, running road races, and photography. He regularly contributes significant time and resources to the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the MSPCA and other animal rights organizations, and the Bitran Charitable Foundation. Marco has also volunteered and consulted for public housing support organizations such as the Somerville Homeless Coalition, created by the local community’s grassroots response to the social crisis of homelessness.