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Climate change opens Arctic’s Northeast passage

Two German ships set off on Friday on the first commercial journey from Asia to western Europe via the Arctic through the fabled Northeast Passage – a trip made possible by climate change.

August 22nd, 2009

Niels Stolberg, president and CEO of Bremen-based Beluga Shipping, said the Northern Sea Route will cut thousands of nautical miles off the ships’ journey from South Korea to the Netherlands, reducing fuel consumption and emissions of greenhouse gas. I had the chance to ask Stolberg a few questions about the Arctic expedition:

Question: What’s the status of the voyage?
Stolberg: MV “Beluga Fraternity” and the MV “Beluga Foresight” have just started to sail from Vladivostok (on Friday) with the destination Novyy Port at the river Ob.

Question: When did they leave Vladivostok and when will they arrive in Europe?
Stolberg: They’ve just left Vladivostok. They are scheduled to arrive in Novyy Port around September 6th. After discharging, they will proceed via Murmansk to Rotterdam. Estimated time of arrival is still to be confirmed and up to further voyage development.

Question: How much time/fuel/money/CO2 will this northern route save?
Stolberg: The amount of time, fuel, money or emission saved will be significant by transiting the Northeast Passage instead of sailing the traditional way through the Suez. From Ulsan via the Suez Canal to Rotterdam it would be a roughly 11,000 nautical mile journey whereas the short cut between Asia and Europe utilizing the Northeast Passage is a 8,700 mile journey. The saved distance in detail always depends on the route, so the routes could be about 3,000 to 5,000 miles shorter. Savings of about three million euros by sending six vessels through the Northeast Passage per open time frame is realistic. Saving distance means saving bunker means saving money: That is the formula.

Question: Your company has been a pioneer in reducing costs/CO2 — is that why you’re so eager to sail the northern route?
Stolberg: It is a hallmark of the corporate philosophy of Beluga Shipping to go off the beaten tracks whenever possible and reasonable: MV “Beluga SkySails”, co-powered by a towing kite system, or many projects developed and driven by our own department “Research & Innovation” follow that principle with the overall intention and make shipping more efficient as well as into a greener business. In this sense, we reckon that the Northeast Passage offers unmatched chances for efficient sea traffic when as an effect of global warming in the summer there is the chance of using this seaway for a couple of weeks, thus connecting the markets in Europe and Asia

Question: Is drawing attention to global warming an aspect of this journey?
Stolberg: This is not our intention nor does it reflect our business. My personal opinion is that global warming and climate change, obviously, are developments with some negative effects. However, the melting ice in the Northeast Passage and thus the possibility to transit through this passage for commercial purpose has positive effects, too. This development enables shipping companies to reduce bunker consumption and as a consequence CO2 and other emissions as well which, in turn, are small factors to limit the scope of the global warming.

Question: Do you think many other ships will be taking this Arctic short cut?
Stolberg: The possibility to transit the Northeast Passage in combination with the cargo flow between Europe and Asia is a major reason and motivation why the Northern Sea Route will become even more attractive for shipping companies. So, it is our goal to utilize this seaway regularly, if possible, and we could imagine others will follow our example. You also have to have appropriate modern vessels, you have to have an experienced team of experts on board and all behind in the onshore offices and you have to be granted permission by the authorities.

Question: Why have no other ships tried this northern route yet? Why are you the first?
Stolberg: Russian submarines and icebreakers have used the northern route in the past. But it wasn’t open for regular commercial shipping until now because there are many areas with thick ice. It was only last summer that satellite pictures revealed the ice is melting and a small corridor opened which could enable commercial shipping through the Northeast Passage. We’re the first company to travel the route this summer because we have suitable vessels and are well prepared to master the challenge.

Question: What are the dangers of the northern route?
Stolberg: There are numerous challenges and some risks awaiting both vessel and crew. Even though the ice is melting in the respective time frame, cold temperature and ice, drifting ice fields or ridges can become a problem and produce a risk of injury to the crew as well as a risk of damage to the vessel. The look out is highly important. Also the ship material and not least the seaworthy and all lashings of the cargo have to be checked constantly under this even more rough and inhospitable conditions than elsewhere on the ocean. There is no expertise or field report we could rely on. However, we are well prepared and have been intensively working on this project for far more than a year now.

Question: When exactly is the “window”? Will it be opening wider soon?
Stolberg: The open window for transiting the Northeast Passage roughly is a six to eight weeks time frame in the Russian summer between August and September. This is when the sun powers up to 20 or even more degrees Celsius in Russia and the ice along the route is mostly melting. Thereafter the sun loses power again and the area refreezes. Whether or not the window will open wider soon is a question only climate experts can answer.




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