All Set For The Polar Express?
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For decades scientists have been reporting on the impact of global warming. We’ve seen images of the depleting reach of sea ice along with images of polar bears struggling to find food in the changing conditions. January 2016 was a particularly concerning month for environmentalists, as sea ice reach was at the lowest levels since satellite recording began.

Scientists have focused on the threat of melting sea ice to the unique environment and wildlife of the Arctic. They have also highlighted the potential problems that could be increasingly experienced around the world if sea ice melt causes a rise in global sea levels. For a start, low lying islands could simply be lost to the sea.

A Fresh Opportunity?

Whilst scientists highlight the threats, others have been considering the opportunities that such changes could open up. One such example is the chance to create an ice-free shipping lane, to transport goods from the Pacific to Atlantic Oceans, along the northern boarders of Russia.

The international shipping industry currently transports as much as 90% of world traded goods. We rely on ships full of containers to import and export affordable goods around the world and without a reliable shipping industry, we would be deprived of many items that we now consider essential to everyday life.

At present ships travelling between the Pacific and Atlantic have to travel through the Suez Canal. At a time when fuel prices were high and summer ice in the Arctic were declining, the prospect of reducing journey times and fuel costs between China and Europe, by navigating a short cut in the Arctic Ocean, was explored.

Russia was keen to support the initiative and offered to provide ice breaking vessels and make improvements to port facilities along its northern shores. Some cargo ships do currently follow this route, but this amounted to only 100,000 tonnes of cargo in 2015, just a small percentage of the total being transported. The idea was to increase the commercial viability of this route and encourage more ships to take the northern route.

Arctic Institute Report

Since the idea was initially explored, there have been changes to the economic climate, particularly in terms of fuel costs, which have plummeted over the last year. In February an Arctic Institute report provided a further blow to the concept. This report, which has been backed by the influential Danish Ship Owner’s Association, suggests that low fuel costs, a short sailing season and the risks presented by treacherous and unpredictable conditions mean that the Arctic shipping lane is unlikely to be commercially viable until at least 2040.

Even with the deployment of ice breaking vessels, the route remains too hazardous for the ship’s crew and its cargo. Whilst this January recoded the lowest levels of sea ice, the winter months can still be perilous and ice can still block the route in summer. This year air temperatures were above average, so the route may be passable, but conditions in future years could be far more extreme and dangerous.

Shipping Safety

As a global industry, shipping is regulated by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Even on established routes, the harsh nature of the sea can expose ships and crew to considerable physical risk. As a result, compliance with safety regulations is essential.

From selecting the right transport routes and accessing necessary facilities in port, to providing adequate medical equipment and ensuring that there are sufficient medical supplies for ships, safety is a priority. Until a reliable, safe and commercially viable Arctic shipping lane can be assured, the idea of a northern shortcut between China and Europe will fail to become a reality.

For further information on equipment and medical supplies for ships, visit L.E.West.


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