They call it a "one-off" but it is the shape of things to come.
The Northeast Passage, across the top of Russia, never had the romance of the Northwest Passage across the top of Canada, but it is still a shortcut to Asia from Europe, cutting two weeks off the trip, if only it wasn’t filled with all that pesky ice. But now, thanks to climate change, it has become possible to ram an ice-reinforced ship through, and that is what Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping company, is planning to do this fall.
The Venta Maersk, a new ship just delivered in July, has been specially reinforced and can carry up to 3,600 TEU (twenty foot equivalent unit shipping containers); it will be doing the first container ship transit. It is a bit of an experiment; a spokesperson is quoted in shipping site Splash:
It is important to underline that this is a trial designed to explore an unknown route for container shipping and to collect scientific data. Currently, we do not see the Northern Sea Route as an alternative to our usual routes….Today, the passage is only feasible for around three months a year which may change with time. Furthermore, we also must consider that ice-classed vessels are required to make the passage, which means an additional investment.”
Some analysts don’t think it makes much sense and call it “a stunt.” Another expert, Ryan Uljua, told Splash that container ships, unlike tankers, have to follow a tight schedule.
More so than tankers and dry bulk carriers, container lines and their clients value reliability and predictability of schedule over speed. While Arctic routes may reduce distance and bunker costs, it remains to be seen whether the harsh conditions of the Arctic and myriad opportunities for delay – weather, ice conditions, environmental regulations, icebreaker availability, etc. – will reduce sailing times while maintaining schedule reliability.
Uljua predicted that “shipping patterns were unlikely to change in the short term and would only happen decades from now.”
But that’s an optimistic view; according to Jonathan Watts in the Guardian, “the oldest and thickest sea ice in the Arctic has started to break up, opening waters north of Greenland that are normally frozen, even in summer.” Philip Bump in the Washington Post declared August 21 the day that the climate change fight was obviously lost. Maersk can see what’s happening.
You can follow the progress of the Venta Maersk here.