Danish shipping company
Nordic Bulk Carriers said it has saved a third of the cost and nearly
half the time in shipping goods to China by taking advantage of receding
Arctic ice to sail north of Russia instead of via the Suez Canal.
As the climate warms up and ice melts, many shipping companies are
eyeing the Northern Sea Route as a way to cut voyage times and costs in
"We see great potential in this," Nordic Bulk Carriers Director
Christian Bonfils told Reuters. "When we save 22 days on transportation,
it is very, very good business for us."
The company plans to make four to five such trips next summer, he said.
On Aug. 30, its Sanko Odyssey, the world's biggest ice-classed bulk
carrier, set out from the Russian port of Murmansk along the Northern
Sea Route to arrive in China on Sept. 23 after 23 days at sea, which
according to Bonfils is 22 days less than sailing through the Suez
It was the second voyage by a commercial bulk carrier through the icy sea lane.
Depending on the particular ports of a route, the distance to China
is roughly 30 percent shorter. Another Nordic Bulk Carriers ship made
the trip in the summer of 2010.
The ship was carrying 70,000 tons of iron ore concentrate and was
escorted by a Russian icebreaker through the Arctic. It arrived at the
Chinese port of Jingtang.
"It is a good alternative to the Suez â especially for goods leaving
countries like Norway, Finland, northern Russia or the Baltic
countries," said Bonfils.
Even if the Arctic summer route does become a feasible alternative, however, it is unlikely to get heavy traffic.
"This route will never be the Suez. It would be like having a Suez
that was only open four months a year, and you didn't know which months
those were because it depended on the weather," Bonfils said.
Those drawbacks are offset by the time and fuel saved, Bonfils said.
In the latest voyage, its Japanese-built vessel saved 1,000 tons of fuel
by taking the northern route.
The biggest obstacle in sailing the remote icy waters is not ice, but
Russian bureaucracy, Bonfils said. Permission from the Russian
authorities and at least one Russian atomic icebreaker as an escort are
required to use the route.
"The biggest bottleneck is that tariffs, rules and regulations that need to be settled on the Russian side," he said.
Still, negotiations for the 2011 trip were markedly easier than for the 2010 voyage, Bonfils said.
"Now we know the decision-making process â it just has to be sped up
and simplified," he said, adding that Russia has promised to simplify
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin last week predicted Arctic
shipping routes along Russia's northern coast would soon rival the Suez
Canal as a quicker trade link from Europe to Asia.
Officials at the Arctic Forum in the White Sea port city of
Arkhangelsk said Russia must develop infrastructure to guard against oil
spills, revamp ports and build more icebreakers to realize Putin's
vision of shipping year-round.
"The shortest route between Europe's largest markets and the
Asia-Pacific region lie across the Arctic. This route is almost a third
shorter than the traditional southern one," Putin told participants, who
included Iceland President Olafur Grimsson.
"I want to stress the importance of the Northern Sea Route as an
international transport artery that will rival traditional trade lanes
in service fees, security and quality," Putin said. "States and private
companies who chose the Arctic trade routes will undoubtedly reap
With scientists across the globe predicting a thaw linked to climate
change could deliver ice-free Arctic summers within a decade, Russia's
Sovkomflot cargo line and others have increased test shipments via the
The Arctic was crossed in a record eight days last month by the STI
Heritage tanker, owned by Scorpio Tankers Inc., powering from the United
States to Thailand.
In August, Sovkomflot's supertanker, the Vladimir Tikhonov, ferrying
120,000 tons of natural gas condensate, became the largest vessel of its
kind to forge the passage.
Russia's Novatek, which is eyeing the short-cut as part of an
ambitious project to ship liquefied natural gas from the Yamal
peninsula, estimates the route will slash 10-15 percent off shipping
In another marker of rising interest, Rosatomflot, which sends one of
its 10 atomic-powered icebreakers to smash through ice as thick as six
feet, received 15 requests to escort Arctic voyages in 2011, against
four in 2010.
To meet demand, Putin said Russia will spend $1.2 billion through
2014 on adding to its atomic icebreaker fleet and plans to build three
more by 2020.
One of the chief lures of the Arctic transport corridor is as a means
of avoiding pirates in the waters off East Africa, Sovkomflot's deputy
chief Evegeny Ambrosov told forum guests.
Worried over tanker traffic in the Arctic's pristine waters, in
addition to oil and gas drilling, environmentalists warn it could be far
harder to stem any oil leaks, for instance, than in the Gulf of Mexico
after BP's catastrophic spill in 2010.
"Each company that produces risks in the Arctic â from oil production
to transportation â should ... donate a certain amount per barrel to a
fund that would secure rehabilitation and capacity for urgent action,"
said the World Wildlife Fund's Evgeny Schwartz.