Disintegrating Arctic Sea Ice Is Partly Why This Grim New Shipping Milestone Is Possible


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer

Better ice-breaking tech, and warmer temperatures up there, mean that the Northern Sea Route is increasingly open for business. mircea dobre/Shutterstock

Maersk, the largest shipping company in the world, is beginning a trial that is nothing less than a clear sign of the times: It’s going to try and traverse Arctic waters in September, a task that’s getting easier as time goes on partly thanks to everyone’s favorite big bad, climate change. It'll be the world's first containership transit across Arctic waters if it succeeds.

Per NPR, a route through the Arctic Ocean would be an enormously profitable shortcut across the planet.


It’s impossible to say that no one saw this coming. Back in February, a tanker became the first commercial ship to traverse the Arctic’s sea ice covered northern route in winter. This followed on from another tanker that achieved the same, slightly easier feat in the summer of 2017.

The contents of both tankers? Liquefied natural gas (LNG).

What appeared to be an Ouroboros of climate change-related melancholy was, in fact, a tiny bit more complicated. It turns out that, according to sea ice experts, these milestones were reached partly because the technology these ships use to break through said ice is improving year-on-year.

Saying that, Arctic sea ice extents and thickness are reaching record nadirs. The latest chapter in this sorry story revealed that the oldest and thickest sea ice, which is normally frozen even in summer, has started to fragment in a never-before-seen phenomenon.


Climate change is playing a key role here, and fossil fuel-carrying tankers taking advantage of this is both entirely understandable and unbearably on the nose. Not only that, but the thawing of the sea ice here will make it easier for nations to, if they are legally permitted, mine the oil and gas reserves beneath the seafloor up there.

Denmark-based Maersk may be the first to give getting a boxship through the Arctic a proper go, but it wasn’t too long ago that the Chinese government released a white paper that marked out a “Polar Silk Road”, which called for greater international investigative efforts on the so-called Northern Sea Route.

Some exploration of the region has already been conducted by rival shipping companies, Cosco and MOL, and it seems the Danes are keen not to be shown up on the international stage. So, sometime next month, the company will send the colossal Venta Maersk container ship, one with a specially designed and reinforced hull, up north.

It will travel from Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East and will head to St. Petersburg in the Baltic. It’s part of a larger Baltic feeders class of ships, those built to operate in frigid, sea ice riddled waters year-round.


At least this time, the boat will contain mainly frozen fish, not LNG.


  • tag
  • climate change,

  • Arctic,

  • shipping,

  • sea ice,

  • shrinking,

  • thinning,

  • Maersk,

  • containers,

  • technology improvements