Tanker becomes first to cross Arctic without icebreaker

Drone helps ship navigate Arctic ice
Drone helps ship navigate Arctic ice

Climate change is helping create new opportunities for shipping companies by melting the ice around the North Pole.

A Russian tanker carrying natural gas has become the first merchant ship to sail across the Arctic without the help of an icebreaker, finishing the journey in record time.

The ship, the Christophe de Margerie, traveled from Norway to South Korea in 19 days, about 30% quicker than the regular route through the Suez Canal, its Russian owner, Sovcomflot, said this week.

Related: Businesses that benefit from global warming

The tanker managed to complete the northernmost part of the voyage between two remote Russian ports -- known as the Northern Sea Route -- in a record-breaking six-and-half days.

Every year, arctic ice naturally shrinks in the spring and summer before growing again during winter. But as global temperatures have risen, the old sea ice that lasts year after year has shrunk to its smallest level in three decades.

sovcomflot christophe de margerie

Thinner, younger sea ice -- less than a year old -- has become the majority across the Arctic. Young ice struggles to reach a thickness of 2 meters (6½ feet) during winter months and then is more likely to melt during the summer.

Related: Watch as old sea ice vanishes

It's a huge concern. According to NASA, many global climate models predict that the Arctic will be ice-free for at least part of the year before the end of the 21st century. Some models predict an ice-free Arctic by midcentury. That would have a direct impact on weather patterns around the world.

The thinning ice also opens new paths for global trade, saving companies hundreds of thousands of dollars they would spend on longer journeys via more southerly routes.

"This is the paradox of climate change," said Ben Ayliffe, a campaigner for Greenpeace. "The fossil fuels we're burning are allowing access into areas that were previously protected by ice."

He expressed concern that increasing sea traffic in the inhospitable environment will bring new risks, such as a fuel spill that would be virtually impossible to clean up.

climate change arctic shipping routes
These three Arctic shipping routes are now more clear than ever.

Shipping tankers making their way across the top of the world typically need to be accompanied by massive, nuclear-powered Russian icebreakers to plow through patches of six-foot-thick ice.

But the Christophe de Margerie, named for a former CEO of French oil giant Total, is specially designed to sail independently through ice as thick as 2.1 meters (nearly 7 feet), its owner said.

That means it should be able to operate in the harsh Arctic waters year round rather than just the summer months.

Its recent journey ferrying liquified natural gas more than 2,000 nautical miles through ice as thick as 1.2 meters (4 feet) "demonstrates the economic potential of using the Northern Sea Route for large-capacity vessel transits," Sovcomflot said.

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