SOURCE: Reuters

DATE: August 24, 2018

SNIP: A Maersk vessel loaded with Russian fish and South Korean electronics will next week become the first container ship to navigate an Arctic sea route that Russia hopes will become a new shipping highway.

The Arctic voyage by the 3,600 20-foot container capacity Venta Maersk is the latest step in the expansion of the so-called Northern Sea Route which is becoming more accessible to ships as climate change reduces the amount of sea ice.

While the route is significantly shorter than going via the Suez Canal, it has not yet proven to be commercially viable for container shippers.

“Currently, we do not see the Northern Sea Route as an alternative to our usual routes,” a spokeswoman for Maersk said.

“Today, the passage is only feasible for around three months a year which may change with time,” the spokeswoman said.

Sea ice around the North Pole reaches its biggest area at the end of the winter in March, and thaws to an annual minimum in September. The ice has shrunk in recent decades in a trend scientists have linked to man-made climate change.

In the past, more expensive ice-classed vessels, higher transit fees, unpredictable ice coverage, high insurance rates, a lack of search and rescue teams, and hefty fees for Russian ice-breaker escorts have put off many international shipping firms.

But Russian officials have said there is strong interest in the sea route from Asian countries and that new icebreakers will allow for year-round navigation in the 2020s.

The Venta Maersk will be the first container ship to sail the route, but other types of vessels have already used it, including Maersk’s Chinese rival COSCO, according to the Arctic Institute.

In January, China revealed ambitions to create a “Polar Silk Road” by developing shipping lanes opened up by global warming and encouraging enterprises to build infrastructure in the Arctic.