The Christophe de Margerie, a specially constructed Russian LNG tanker, has completed a journey from Hammerfest, Norway, through the Arctic Ocean to Boryeong, South Korea, in just 19 days — far faster than if it had followed the traditional route through the Suez Canal. What is most remarkable about the journey is that the tanker required no ice breaker to make its way through ice in the Arctic.
The Christophe de Margerie is the first of a new class of tankers that utilize an internal ice breaker built into the hull, The Guardian reports. It was able to push its way through ice up to 1.2 meters thick in the Arctic Ocean north of Russia in a record-setting 6.5 days. It cost $300 million to build and is intended specifically to take advantage of the fact that sea ice in the Arctic Ocean is now thinner than it has ever been before, “thanks to” global warming caused by burning fossil fuels.
“It’s very quick, particularly as there was no icebreaker escort which previously there had been in journeys,” said Bill Spears, spokesperson for Sovcomflot, the shipping company which owns the tanker. “It’s very exciting that a ship can go along this route all year round.”
The company is very proud of the fact that the Christophe de Margerie can operate using LNG fuel. Compared to the heavy bunker oil most commercial vessels burn, LNG reduces sulfur emissions by 90% and nitrous oxide emissions by 80%. “This is a significant factor in a fragile ecosystem,” said Spears.
Oh, happy day. But as soon as the ship is through the ice fields and out on the open ocean, it switches back to conventional fuel and spews plumes of noxious emissions in its wake all the way. 14 more tankers like the Christophe de Margerie are planned.
The Russian government is an enthusiastic supporter of the new sea route, which will allow it to distribute its natural gas reserves to world markets without using pipelines across politically unstable nations in the Middle East. Vladimir Putin and his minions expect commercial traffic in the Arctic Ocean will increase tenfold by 2020.
“There has been a steady increase in traffic in recent years,” said Spears. “There’s always been trade along this route but it’s been restricted a lot by the ice. It’s exciting that this route presents a much shorter alternative than the Suez route. It’s a major saving.”
Simon Boxall, an oceanographer at the University of Southampton, said that shipping companies were making a “safe bet” in building ships in anticipation that the northern sea route will open up. “Even if we stopped greenhouse emissions tomorrow, the acceleration in the loss of Arctic ice is unlikely to be reversed,” he said.
“We’ve been able to sail through the north-west passage for several years now but the northern passage, which goes past Russia, has opened up on and off since 2010. We’re going to see this route being used more and more by 2020. The irony is that one advantage of climate change is that we will probably use less fuel going to the Pacific.”
The question now is just how much more irony the world can tolerate before the next great extinction — which may well include human beings — begins.
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