Arctic shipping lanes to open as polar ice bids a retreat
Rapid arctic climate change is set to open the northern seas for a major expansion in oil transportation and exploration
24 May 2005
FOR ALL the controversy surrounding the science of global warming, the shipping industry can be sure of the fact that the retreat of the polar ice cap means commercial Arctic sea lanes will be a reality by 2050.
Centuries of romance surrounding the icy fate of explorers, such as Martin Frobisher, Wilhelm Barents or John Franklin, and their search for a northern passage over the next few decades will melt into reality.
Arctic climate researchers with extensive recent field work report that change from the later half of the 20th century has been unprecedented.
Experts from the US Arctic Research Commission in Alaska to organisations such as Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research agree there is no evidence this process is going to let up.
This July, the science will be published in the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment following approval in November by international forum the Arctic Council in Reykjavik.
“The Arctic is now experiencing some of the most rapid and severe climate change on Earth”, emphasises US Arctic Research Commission deputy executive director Dr Lawson Brigham. “Each of the five global climate models used offer a continuous decline in Arctic sea ice cover throughout the 21st century. The observed retreat of Arctic sea ice is a real phenomenon.”
The importance of these findings to the industry was in evidence recently at a Lloyd’s List Arctic conference that drew top figures from across shipping.
An Arctic marine strategic plan, lead by Iceland and Canada through the Arctic Council’s Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment working group, has set down an initial map of the risks posed by shipping and the energy industry for the region’s environment and people.
The Reykjavik summit also established a full-scale Arctic marine shipping assessment, with Canada, Finland and the US at the helm, over the next three years.
Even the staunchest sports utility vehicle enthusiast can no longer dispute the steady decrease in polar ice cover, even if explanations how and why are hotly disputed.
The paradox for shipping is that this dramatic sea change — viewed by others as a global catastrophe — holds out huge business opportunities.
And the driving force for this will be oil and gas transportation through the Russian northern seas, and to a lesser extent through the North American Arctic, and demand for more of the very fossil fuels behind the ice’s steady retreat.
By the mid-century a wider expanse of open water in the Arctic during the summer will offer shipping seasonal trade lanes, as accumulated multi-layer ice in the central Arctic decreases and sea ice thins around the ocean.
An ice-free summer Arctic Ocean by 2050, with multi-year ice in the sea disappearing, is one likelihood, with remaining sea ice in summer by 2100 retreating further away from most Arctic coasts.
Other projections for the end of the century calculate a 25% probability of unimpeded access along the Northern Sea Route for almost 180 days of the year.
“There are many variables, but it is clear that warming in the Arctic is occurring”, adds US Arctic Research Commission chair George B Newton. “More and more of the Arctic will become ice free each year and will be that way for longer periods of time.
“Routine Arctic shipping will be possible in about three decades, limited to shorter voyages with intercontinental transit later.”
Effected areas include the Russian Littoral, the Canadian archipelago, the Lincoln Sea north of Greenland and off the Alaskan north slope, all of which are shallow water or continental shelf areas where first year ice forms.
The latest observational data suggests a 3% decrease per decade in sea ice, with perennial pack ice diminishing by 7% every ten years and ice thickness reductions reported between 14% to 32% over the time span.
“This has great significance for Arctic marine shipping since multi-year ice would essentially disappear, with all the next winter’s sea ice first-year”, adds Dr Brigham.
“Global climate models to the end of the century suggest increased marine access and an extended season of navigation in nearly all Arctic regional seas.”
Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research meteorologist Dr Jan Lieser, who has participated in three Arctic expeditions on the German RV Polarstern, points out that there has been a steady retreat in sea ice cover since 1978, with a record ice loss in September 2002.
Scientific analysis of the Canadian Arctic Northwest Passage has not been clear-cut, with inter-annual variability of observed sea ice in the region.
However, observation of Russia’s northern sea route from the Kara Gate to the Bering Strait shows a lengthening season for shipping through the century. With ice remaining on the tip of Severnaya Zemlaya, ACIA research suggests there will be a reliance on a transit route through Vilkitskii Strait between the seas of Kara and Laptev, rather than further north in the open Arctic Ocean.
And, amid all the talk of a doomsday in the cryosphere, Arctic experts are also at pains to stress that research indicates that winter Arctic sea ice will undergo only a modest decrease in coming years.
“There will always be an ice covered Arctic Ocean in winter, although the ice may be thinner and contain less multi-year ice”, adds Dr Brigham.
The ACIA research has also led to the development of an ice atlas of the future, which will offer a strategic, long range view of the possible shape over coming decades of sea ice and marine access in the Arctic basin.
“Sea-going interests will look to the polar routes as a way to reduce costs”, observes Mr Newton. “Transit time and distance savings of nearly 40% can be anticipated using either Russian or Canadian routes.”
One major concern for shipping, apart from the economics of commercial Arctic exploitation, will be safety, with increased oil production and shipping raising the spectre of oil spillage.
“With easier access and increased shipping, and on and offshore exploitation of fuel resources, the concern for an oil spill in high latitude, ice-infested waters becomes very real”, warns Mr Newton.
“It is an event the world is ill prepared to face”.
With 982 spills of at least 10,000 gallons since 1960 off high traffic areas, such as the English Channel and Florida and Malacca Straits, Mr Newton argues that an accident at some point statistically is not unlikely.
“One must assume that a significant oil spill will occur some day in the Arctic Ocean sea ice”, he warns.
The environmental impact of increased oil shipments in the region is an important aspect of a three-year EC-backed research programme into the development of a marine transportation network in Russia’s northern sea routes. Arctic Operational Platform started in 2002 and has counted 22 participants from seven countries, including Russia, Finland, Norway, Germany and Great Britain.
ARCOP figures project a twelvefold growth of export volume by the end of the decade to 102.9m tonnes of crude from northern Russian ports from 8.1m tonnes in 2003, with a peak estimate of around 151.m tonnes.
Big projects include the Shtokman gas project in the Barents, and the inshore terminal at Varandey in the Pechora Sea, as well as the Prirazlomnoye offshore field.
Another Pechora Sea project at Indiga is set to yield 50m by 2010 for Transneft, and is an alternative to Lukoil’s proposed development of Varandey, which already pumps 400,000 tonnes of oil and could yield 20m at full pelt or 12m projected for 2010.
Lukoil’s joint development of Severodvinsk with Taftnet is expected to offer 10m tonnes by the end of the decade and 15m at its peak.
Tambeyneftegaz’s plans for Tambey potentially tripling from 10m tonnes at the end of the decade.
Rosneft has its hand in three projects, with exports in 2010 via the more easterly Dikson development up to 10m and via Arkhangelsk more than doubling to 4.2m with a potential for 7m tonnes. The offshore Prirazlomnoye field is inked for 5.9m tonnes by the end of the decade going to perhaps 7m tonnes.
“Russia is the biggest supplier of oil and gas to Europe and Europe is the biggest user of Russian oil and gas”, explains project co-ordinator Kimmo Juurmaa of Aker Finnyards.
“For the participating European and Russian industries, this project gives ideas of how to develop their products.”
The project focused on an oil transportation scenario from Varandey to Rotterdam, with the development of the south-east part of the Barents considered a realistic first step in the development of the region.
Taking a conservative hypothetical transport volume of 328,000 barrels per day or 16m tonnes per year, the project has also presumed $15 per tonne for the Varandey-Rotterdam route.
The shipping analysis focuses on six areas of concern ranging from ice and navigational information to legal and cross border issues.
The big stumbling block for many investors has been the legal status of the northern sea routes, with the confused state of ice classification rules and the cost of insurance.
For now shipping has to assess the economics and feasibility of an Arctic transportation system, with suitable tanker sizes and corresponding icebreaking alternative.
With shallow coastlines and approaches requiring offshore loading, specially-designed terminals and sub-sea pipelines, along with testing conditions for manpower and machinery, Arctic projects will be a huge operational challenge.
And it is these issues that the shipping industry will have to assess over the next decade if commercial sea lanes are to be a reality in 2050.