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Russian tanker blasts previously impossible path through warming arctic

Moscow – A Russian natural gas tanker has made an experimental round trip along the Northern Sea Route – this is the first time the route across the Arctic has been mapped at this time of year. The voyage of the oil tanker Christophe de Margerie through the ice is the latest visual indicator of climate change in the delicate region.

The tanker, operated by shipping company Sovcomflot, returned to the remote Russian gas terminal at Sabetta on February 19, bringing Russia closer to its goal of year-round commercial shipping through a warming Arctic.


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The LNG (liquefied natural gas) tanker left the Chinese port of Jiangsu on January 27 after delivering its cargo. He entered the Northern Sea Route, which crosses the northern coast of Russia, a few days later near Cape Dezhnev, where he was encountered by the Russian nuclear icebreaker 50 Let Pobedy (50 years of victory). Together, they completed the 2,500 nautical mile journey through the ice in 11 days and 10 hours.

The ship managed to complete the first leg of the journey from Russia to China without an icebreaker. Both trips broke winter sailing records due to climate change in the Arctic allowing passage through thinner ice. Using the Northern Sea Route allows shippers in Russia and other countries to avoid a much longer trip south to Europe, the Middle East and all of South Asia, thus saving costs. millions of dollars.

The deepest ice encountered by the ships was about 5 feet thick. However, the ships did not encounter any build-up of old ice over several years on the route, and meteorologist and journalist Eric Holthaus called this a clear indicator of a “climate emergency”.

Last May, the Christophe de Margerie became the first high-capacity cargo ship to transit east of the Northern Sea Route, two months earlier in the year than the traditional voyage.

Russian tanker blasts previously impossible path through warming arctic
Russian tanker Christophe de Margerie is seen crossing the Northern Sea Route in February 2021.

Sovcomflot


“Following the first voyage of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) made by Christophe de Margerie in May 2020, as well as the current voyage of the NSR, navigation in the eastern part of the Arctic has been practically doubled”, said Igor Tonkovidov, CEO of Sovcomflot. earlier this month. He noted that for decades the transit route along this segment of the NSR had generally remained closed by ice from November to July.

“The Arctic is ours”

Novatek, the company that operates the Sabetta LNG gas plant, plans to continue its experimental trips east along the Northern Sea Route, with the next scheduled for this spring, Russian business daily Kommersant said, citing the boss of the company.

Russian tanker blasts previously impossible path through warming arctic
An illustration from the European University of Saint Petersburg shows the North Sea sea route, which a Russian tanker first crossed in the winter in February 2021, and the southern route of the Suez Canal.

European University of St. Petersburg


Last year, Russia transported nearly 33 million tonnes of cargo along the Northern Sea Route, including more than 18 million tonnes of LNG. Freight traffic along the NSR has almost quintupled in the past five years alone.

“The road can handle a lot more than that,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Trutnev said at a government meeting last week. He said that, according to a decree from President Vladimir Putin, freight traffic along the NSR is expected to reach 80 million tonnes per year by 2024.

“One way to achieve this goal is to extend the period of navigation in the Arctic,” said Trutnev.

To help it realize its lucrative ambitions in the Arctic, Russia has renewed its unique civilian fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers. Last year Russia unveiled the new flagship of this fleet, the Arktika, said to be the largest and most powerful in the world.

Russian tanker blasts previously impossible path through warming arctic
The nuclear-powered icebreaker Arktika returns to St. Petersburg on December 14, 2019, after testing.

OLGA MALTSEVA / AFP / Getty


“The Russian Arctic is attracting many interested in its resources,” St. Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko said at the launch ceremony. “But the Arctic is ours, and we’ve proven it.”

By the end of 2022, Russia plans to launch two more ships of the same series.

Environmentalists have expressed concern over the growing presence of nuclear power in the sensitive Arctic region, which is already plagued by climate change issues.

By some estimates, the Arctic holds oil and gas reserves equivalent to 412 billion barrels of oil, or about 22% of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas.


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