Tanker becomes first to cross Arctic without icebreaker

IN FLIGHT, GREENLAND - MARCH 30: Sea ice is seen from NASA's Operation IceBridge research aircraft off the northwest coast on March 30, 2017 above Greenland. NASA's Operation IceBridge has been studying how polar ice has evolved over the past nine years and is currently flying a set of eight-hour research flights over ice sheets and the Arctic Ocean to monitor Arctic ice loss aboard a retrofitted 1966 Lockheed P-3 aircraft. According to NASA scientists and the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), sea ice in the Arctic appears to have reached its lowest maximum wintertime extent ever recorded on March 7. Scientists have said the Arctic has been one of the regions hardest hit by climate change. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Climate change is helping create new opportunities for shipping companies by melting the ice around the North Pole.

A Russian tanker carrying natural gas has become the first merchant ship to sail across the Arctic without the help of an icebreaker, finishing the journey in record time.

The ship, the Christophe de Margerie, traveled from Norway to South Korea in 19 days, about 30% quicker than the regular route through the Suez Canal, its Russian owner, Sovcomflot, said this week.

The tanker managed to complete the northernmost part of the voyage between two remote Russian ports — known as the Northern Sea Route — in a record-breaking six-and-half days.

Every year, arctic ice naturally shrinks in the spring and summer before growing again during winter. But as global temperatures have risen, the old sea ice that lasts year after year has shrunk to its smallest level in three decades.

Thinner, younger sea ice — less than a year old — has become the majority across the Arctic. Young ice struggles to reach a thickness of 2 meters (6½ feet) during winter months and then is more likely to melt during the summer.

It’s a huge concern. According to NASA, many global climate models predict that the Arctic will be ice-free for at least part of the year before the end of the 21st century. Some models predict an ice-free Arctic by midcentury. That would have a direct impact on weather patterns around the world.

The thinning ice also opens new paths for global trade, saving companies hundreds of thousands of dollars they would spend on longer journeys via more southerly routes.

“This is the paradox of climate change,” said Ben Ayliffe, a campaigner for Greenpeace. “The fossil fuels we’re burning are allowing access into areas that were previously protected by ice.”

He expressed concern that increasing sea traffic in the inhospitable environment will bring new risks, such as a fuel spill that would be virtually impossible to clean up.

Shipping tankers making their way across the top of the world typically need to be accompanied by massive, nuclear-powered Russian icebreakers to plow through patches of six-foot-thick ice.

But the Christophe de Margerie, named for a former CEO of French oil giant Total, is specially designed to sail independently through ice as thick as 2.1 meters (nearly 7 feet), its owner said.

That means it should be able to operate in the harsh Arctic waters year round rather than just the summer months.

Its recent journey ferrying liquified natural gas more than 2,000 nautical miles through ice as thick as 1.2 meters (4 feet) “demonstrates the economic potential of using the Northern Sea Route for large-capacity vessel transits,” Sovcomflot said.