Container ship takes shortcut through Bering Strait
The Venta Maersk churned through the Bering Strait Sept. 8 on an Asia to Europe route, the first large ice-class container vessel to test the feasibility of container ship travel over Russia’s Northern Sea Route from northern Alaska to Northern Europe.
The Venta Maersk, which can carry 3,600 standard 20-ft. containers left South Korea on Aug. 29 with LNG destined for St. Petersburg, Russia, in a test run that the Danish company hopes will cut two weeks of the usual route through the Suez Canal.
Shipping companies are looking to take advantage of global warming rapidly opening less-icy Arctic waters to save time and money over sailing around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope or the Suez Canal. The Northern Sea Route can be open from July to October due to accelerated warming of polar seas.
The Venta Maersk is backed up by four nuclear-powered Rosatomflot Russian icebreakers in case its way is impeded by ice as it sails past Siberia’s Arctic Sea coast. Rosatomflot’s business is icebreaker support for the Northern Sea Route.
“The Northern Sea Route is the shortest way between the West and the East. Fast and economically beneficial. No queues or pirates,” the Rosakomflot Web site boasts.
Likewise, the Venta Maersk is carrying Russian pilots onboard to help with navigation.
The new vessel measures 656 feet long with a beam of 118 feet. Its draught is approximately 36 feet.
The advent of large container vessels ties into existing environmental concerns with warmer climates opening shipping lanes in northern waters. A super highway along the Northern Sea Route would open increased threats to the Arctic environment by way of fuel pollution and disruption to marine resources—marine mammals, fish, birds and food webs.
Built in China, the Venta will use less fuel, but still travel on cheap but heavily polluting “bunker” fuel. Heavy fuel oil, HFO for short, also goes by “residual oil,” or “bunker C,” or No. 6. Bunker fuel is the term given to any fuel poured into a ship’s bunkers to power its engines. Deepsea cargo ships typically burn the heavy, residual oil left over after gasoline, diesel and other light hydrocarbons are extracted from crude oil during the refining process. Industry material safety sheets for marine fuel oil classify it as hazardous and very toxic to aquatic life, with long-lasting effects.
In the Arctic, spill response will be difficult for any spill, but remoteness and extreme weather will present greater challenges in responding to spilled HFO. While portions of marine diesels can weather and evaporate, HFO stays for a long time when spilled, producing long-term effects on the environment and living marine resources—marine mammals, birds, fish, shell fish and the food web.
HFO is a group of hydrocarbon products of high density and viscosity used generally to produce motion or heat. Spilled HFO weathers extremely slowly, sinks and gets trapped under ice, even sticks to ice, and can emulsify in water which can increase its original volume, according to information from the International Maritime Organization’s Marine Environment Protection Committee. Damage to the environment can have lasting effects on food security and food gathering in the Arctic.
The International Maritime Organization, or IMO, is a part of the U.N. and is considering a proposal put forward in February by eight member nations—Finland, Germany, Iceland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and the United States — to ban heavy fuel oil use and carriage as fuel by ships in Arctic waters.
However, because of fluctuating ice and weather conditions, a regular container vessel shipping schedule is not likely to begin next year, or even five years from now. Time is money. Success depends on vessels being able to deliver as promised on schedules to meet docking schedules and transshipping networks.
“I kind of think we’re more talking about a scale of decades rather than years before that is a regular occurrence,” Ryan Uljua, cited by Alaska Public Media, said. Uljua is senior fellow at Arctic Institute in Washington D.C.
The China state-owned China Ocean Shipping Co., COSCO for short, started shipping across the Northern Sea Route several years ago.
Uljua thinks that competition in the Arctic is what got Maersk to shove off onto the shorter route with a cargo ship.COSCO plans to boost its container fleet by 50,000 20-foot-equivalent units by the end of the year.
Bering Sea and Bering Strait shipping routes stemming from efforts of Russia and United States to safeguard shipping traffic and the environment have received approval from the IMO. The routes that would ply the territorial waters of Alaska and Russia are voluntary for international and domestic ships of 400 gross tonnages and more, as traffic studies indicate these are the vessels likely to use the routes. The United States and Russia came up with the six two-way routes plus six sensitive areas to avoid in response to increased shipping.
Adherence to the shipping routes will begin Dec. 1 and help mariners avoid navigational hazards —reefs, islands, shoals and to reduce the risks of environmental disasters.
The Venta Maersk is due at Bremerhaven, Germany on September 22.