A ship has made a winter crossing of the Arctic without an icebreaker for the first time as global warming causes the region’s ice sheets to melt.
The tanker, containing liquefied natural gas, is the first commercial vessel to make such a crossing alone during the winter months.
The voyage is a significant moment in the story of climate change in the Arctic and will be seized on by those with concerns about thinning polar ice and its implications for the environment.
Belonging to the shipping company Teekay, the ship Eduard Toll made its way from South Korea to the Sabetta terminal in northern Russia in December.
From there, it sailed to Montoir in France to deliver a load of liquefied natural gas.
A similar vessel made the same crossing in August last year, but this is the first time it has been completed when the temperatures are at their coldest.
“The people and passion one needs for an ice passage like this cannot be underestimated,” Teekay gas group’s president and chief executive, Mark Kremin, told TradeWinds.
As global warming leads to melting Arctic ice, areas of the northern oceans are becoming accessible to vessels for the first time.
Shipping companies have been investing in ships that are able to break through thinning polar ice, as the northern sea route is considerably shorter for many trade links between Europe and Asia.
Teekay is investing in six ships to travel to its liquefied natural gas project in Yamal, northern Russia.
One study suggested European routes to Asia will become 10 days faster via the Arctic than alternatives by the middle of the century, and 13 days faster by the end.
“The reduction in summer sea ice, perhaps the most striking sign of climate change, may also provide economic opportunities,” Dr Nathanael Melia, one of the authors of that study, said at the time.
“There is renewed interest in trans-Arctic shipping because of potentially reduced costs and journey times between Asia and the Atlantic.”
However, environmentalists and scientists have expressed concerns over the opening of the northern route and exploitation of polar resources.
In December, the EU and nine of the world’s major fishing nations announced an agreement to ban fishing in the Arctic Ocean for the next 16 years. This was welcomed by environmentalists and scientists who pointed out the fragility of polar ecosystems, and the need to preserve them instead of merely exploiting resources made newly available my melting sea ice.
But even non-fishing vessels can cause damage to the Arctic due to the pollution they emit into a largely pristine environment.
As for the opening of trade routes, environmentalists have noted the irony in the rapidly warming Arctic seas being used as a highway for fossil fuel transport.
“The Arctic has already exceeded the Paris agreement’s aspiration of limiting warming to 1.5C, and the agreed target of 2C. In some areas it has warmed by 4C,” said Sarah North, senior oil strategist for Greenpeace International.
“Inevitably, this has caused massive changes, with most of the Arctic ice having already disappeared. And so now, ironically, we can deliver fossil fuels more quickly. It’s like a heavy smoker using his tracheotomy to smoke two cigarettes at once.”
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies