Russian port data show huge increases in Arctic shipping

icebreaker2 The 50 Let Pobedy icebreaker bringing politicians to the North Pole. Credit: Murmansky Vestnik

While some in Vladimir Putin’s government may worry that they won’t be able to meet his goal of shipping 80 million tons of traffic via the Arctic over the next five years – as some of them grumbled last week ­– it won’t be for lack of trying.

That’s because new figures from Russia’s ports along the Northern Sea Route show that the volume of goods being shipped out into the Arctic waterway are up by 25 percent, according to new figures from the Russian Ministry of Transport.

This may cause some of those ministers to breath a sigh of relief, but the booming business along the Northern Sea Route – a 4,500-kilometer long stretch of sea running from Northern Siberia to the Bering Strait – won’t be doing the environment any good.

That’s because most of the products getting shipped out of the Arctic are carbon-intensive commodities like coal and oil. Liquefied natural gas shipments are also up, as are other products like minerals, iron and construction materials.

The ocean freight figures over the last year constitute a record, and represent a flurry of activity in the Russian Arctic not seen since Soviet times.

Ports in Murmansk alone handled some 60 million tons of cargo in 2018 – an 18.1 percent boost over volumes from the year before. Archangelsk ports saw their volumes grow by 15 percent.

The biggest increases came in Sabetta, which sits on the icy Yamal Peninsula in the Kara Sea. With Novatek’s $27 billion Yamal LNG project now in commercial production, Sabetta has seen a 130 percent increase in the volume of cargo it handles – up to 17.4 tons for 2018.

But one toxic byproduct of all this activity is the soot produced by huge freighters steaming through the Arctic sea passage, many of which are operating on heavy fuel oil, or HFO, a carbon intensive and polluting energy source. Exhaust from this fuel coats Arctic ice in a blackish film, making it more vulnerable to withering solar radiation and contributing to the overall polar melt.

The effects on the earth’s warming atmosphere are no better. One large cargo ship or mega ocean liner can produce the same volume of carbon emissions in one day as come from one million cars over the course of a year.

Yet some shippers are looking to lighten the weight of their footprint on the Arctic by switching to less damaging fuels. For instance, Sovkomflot, Russia’s largest ocean freight operator, is looking to power its arctic-bound fleet on liquefied natural gas. The flagship in that line is expected to launch in 2022, and will be one of five the shipper says it will build.

Added to that are plans by Hurtigruten, the Norwegian arctic ferry, cargo and passenger operator, to launch hybrid electric vessels. The company has entirely sworn off HFO as a fuel for its fleet, and is even looking into powering some of its ships with biomass.

Still, the ravages of climate change on the Arctic – which is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet – makes more shipping via the Northern Sea Route inevitable. Ice levels at the pole have fallen by 12 percent over the past decade and nearly all of the Arctic’s oldest ice is already gone. By some estimations, the Northern Sea Route could be obsolete by 2045 – because ships will be able to sail straight over the top of the world instead.

Frederic Hauge, Bellona’s president, says that the key to not damaging the Arctic any further is persuading shipping companies to switch the sorts of fuel they use – away from HFO and toward those that Sovkomflot and Hurtigruten are testing.

“For Bellona, which has been working with Russia for many years, this means closer cooperation in developing common approaches,” he told the Arctic Frontiers conference last week, at Bellona event titled The Arctic Fuel Menu and the Northern Sea Route. “Global climate change is challenging us to explore new opportunities.”

For all the new activity in the Arctic, however, Putin may yet fall short of his demands. The total weight of traffic passing through the entire length of the Northern Sea Route in 2018 was 18 million tons – still well short of the Kremlin’s wishes.