Climate crisis: Russian gas tankers make first winter voyages of Northern Sea Route as ice retreats

Previous transits have only been attempted in summer and autumn when sea ice extent is at its lowest

Harry Cockburn
Tuesday 26 January 2021 15:55 GMT
An LNG tanker in the Arctic
An LNG tanker in the Arctic

The vast masses of ice in the Arctic are melting far faster than anywhere else on the planet as the world disproportionately heats up amid the worsening climate crisis, and this lack of ice is clearing the way to further exploitation of environmentally damaging fossil fuels.

Just 10 years ago, the ice meant winter voyages along Russia’s Northern Sea Route were impossible, but in recent years the window during which the waters are navigable has opened ever wider.

Last week, in mid-January, three liquid natural gas (LNG) tankers travelled the Northern Sea Route without icebreaker escorts for the first time.

Over the last three years Russian natural gas company Novatek has shipped LNG from its plant on the Yamal Peninsula in northwest Siberia to Asian countries, but has only been able to do so during the summer and autumn, when ice extents are at their lowest.

But the record low sea ice has cleared a path through the arctic for shipments of gas – the burning of which is contributing to the carbon and potent methane greenhouse gases which are heating up our planet.

The decline of the sea ice – which reached its second-lowest minimum ever seen late last year – is believed to be part of a feedback loop in which human-caused global heating is melting ice, the newly uncovered expanses of ocean absorb more of the sun’s warmth, and this results in even less ice forming each year.

This week, scientists said the rate of ice loss is now in line with the “worst-case scenario” set out by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, according to a paper published in the journal The Cryosphere.

Novatek has said its test voyages confirm the technical feasibility of its goal to deliver LNG to Asia year-round, according to Arctic Today.

Two vessels, the Christophe de Margerie and the Nikolay Yevgenov, have left the port of Sabetta on the Yamal Peninsuala, laden with LNG and are now en route to South Korea and China. A third, the Nikolay Zubov, travelled in the opposite direction returning to Sabetta after delivering LNG to China.

“These independent tanker voyages made in January are the result of the targeted work of the company and its partners to expand the navigational season for LNG shipments from our Arctic projects,” said Leonid Mikhelson, Novatek’s chairman of the management board.

David Snider, owner of Martech Polar Consulting, a provider of polar and ice navigation services, told Arctic Today the voyages would have been the result of detailed planning.

“Considerable effort goes into planning and execution. We can assume that the same rigor taken for other voyages was ramped up even more, ensuring the best possible ice information was available on an ongoing basis,” he said.

“It doesn’t pay to have such a high value cargo trapped.”

The company would have used the best available satellite imaging to show the movements of the ice sheet in relation to them, but would still have had to wait for several hours or possibly days to receive each new image.

But even with the risk of being stuck in the ice mitigated, the crews of all three ships are still faced with 24 hours of darkness and dangerous Arctic weather conditions.

“It is more stressful for the crew and the ship due to the polar night and very low temperatures,” said Hervé Baudu, chief professor of maritime education at the French Maritime Academy.

“The ship and its equipment are designed to work in these harsh winter conditions, the Arc7 carriers are certified to -52C.”

Novatek has a total fleet of 15 ice-breaking LNG carriers, and is planning a second generation of more heavy-duty vessels designed for year-round use on Arctic waters. The firm is in the midst of a major expansion which will see year-round shipments of gas to Asian countries.

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