From the Desk of Capt. Jeff Monroe, MM, AMPE
As we’ve been exploring in our Arctic series, there are two existing seasonal sea routes through the Arctic between Europe and Asia: the Northwest Passage (through the Canadian Archipelago) and the Northern Sea Passage (or the “Northeast Passage,” which runs along the north of the Russian Federation). As the polar ice continues to melt, those routes may become accessible year-round, and a third route, the transpolar route, will open up. While the existing routes are currently seasonal, that is not stopping some companies from exploring their viability.
The Maersk Container Ship VENTA MAERSK completed a trial passage of the Northern Sea Route in September 2018. The 3,500 TEU capacity vessel is one of the ocean carrier’s newest Baltic feeder ships. The vessel left the Port of Vladivostok, Russia on the Pacific side in August and arrived in St. Petersburg 37 days later – much faster than a comparable transit through the Suez Canal. The route included a passage through the Bering Strait an eventually on to Bremerhaven, Germany. It is the fourth of seven ice-classed vessels built by Maersk for the Baltic trade, and designed to operate in waters as cold as -25 degrees Celsius (-13 Farenheit).
There appears to be a burgenoining interest in Arctic passenger cruising. Silversea Cruises undertook several Arctic itineraries this year. The line operated discovery cruises for passengers aboard the 6,072 gross ton, 144 cruise ship MS SILVER EXPLORER. A second vessel, MS SILVER WIND, of similar size is being outfitted for Arctic and Antarctic cruises. Hurtigruten will be also be sailing three 350-passenger ships in the Arctic Region, including the MS ROALD AMUNDSEN (launched in 2018) and the MS FRIDTJOF NANSEN. The ships have a length of 459 feet, beam of 79 feet, are rated at 20,889 gross tons, and are ice classed. Hurtigruten strives to reduce its carbon footprint by introducing measures such as eliminating single use plastics, utilizing hybrid propulsion, and the company announced that it plans to use fuel made from reprocessed fish waste.
It remains to be seen whether commercial lines, passenger and freight, will increase transits of the high north as polar ice continues to melt; it is not inconceivable that global trade routes will shift once northern passages are ice-free year round. In the meantime, issues of sovereignty and governance have been, and will continue to be raised, and entities like the Arctic Council will be grappling to balance the interests of participating members. Likewise, the rate at which the ice will melt is a matter of great speculation. Time will tell.