Gas Tanker Crosses Arctic In Winter Without Icebreaker Escort For The First Time

Normally an icebreaker vessel - pictured here - is required. Not this time. Katrin York/Shutterstock

In what amounts to something of a troubling metaphor, a tanker carrying liquefied natural gas (LNG) has made history: it’s now the first commercial ship to traverse the Arctic’s northern sea route in winter.

As reported by Climate Home News, the Eduard Toll left its port in South Korea in December for another port in northern Russia, before completing its journey to Montoir, France. Although it cut through plenty of ice on its route, it didn’t need any assistance from an icebreaker vessel. This ship is designed to break through thin sea ice itself, but its lack of escort is certainly notable; these are normally required to smash through far thicker ice.

Its route was filmed via the crew, which you can watch below, in a rather stunning time-lapse video.

Back in August 2017, another LNG tanker achieved the same feat in the summer, once again without an icebreaker escort. Clearly, it’s now possible in even harsher winter conditions.

As it so happens, Arctic sea ice is, without a doubt, both thinning and shrinking over time.

Each year, the Arctic’s sea ice normally reaches a maximum extent between February and April each year. According to the NASA-supported National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), since satellites started continuously measuring sea ice in 1979, its maximum extent has dropped by roughly 2.8 percent per decade.

Our warming atmosphere, and subsequently our warming oceans, is causing the southern edges of the ice to retreat. We’re going to keep seeing smaller wintertime maximums as a result, and in fact, since 1979, a winter sea ice cover more than equal to twice the size of Texas has been lost.

Once again, this January, the Arctic sea ice extent reached a new nadir. There’s a clear link to anthropogenic climate change here; although regional weather variations can cause minor variations in winter sea ice extents, the overall trend is clearly one of a cryospheric retreat.

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This tale of thinning and shrinking sea ice means that this tanker certainly won’t be the last of its kind to make it through the Arctic Ocean in the height of winter with relative ease. In fact, just recently, Beijing released a white paper that plotted out a “Polar Silk Road”, which called for greater focus and international cooperation on shipping routes through the Arctic as the ice fades from view.

Although it doesn’t border the Arctic, the white paper – as reported by the Financial Times – noted that “as a result of global warming, the Arctic shipping routes are likely to become important transport routes for international trade.” China, of course, wants in.

Although the government emphasized that environmental protection of the region was a priority, they did seem keen to explore and utilize any resources that may lay buried beneath the waves. These resources include, most probably, oil and gas reserves.

We don’t know about you, but this cycle is making us somewhat melancholy.

Importantly, though, at this stage, the groundbreaking passage of the tanker cannot be directly attributed to climate change alone.

"I would caution that, while warming temperatures certainly are playing a role, technology is as important if not more important at this point," Dr Walt Meier, a Senior Research Scientist at the NSIDC, told IFLScience.

"What is different climatically is that there is much less of the thicker multi-year ice... in the Arctic overall and along the Northern Sea Route. So there is less of a chance to run into the thicker ice."

Meier does agree that climate change will make this type of journey more common in the coming years, but opines that "in the near future, access will be defined as much by technology as by changing climate."

Updated with comments from NSIDC

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