The first container ship to tackle an Arctic route along Russia’s north coast has left the Russian port of Vladivostok as it trials a journey made easier by global warming.
The Venta Maersk, which is carrying 3,600 containers, is making a trial passage through the Northern Sea route, departing from Eastern Russia and making port in St Petersburg by late September, the BBC and The Independent reported.
It will collect data as part of an effort to test its economic viability of the route. The journey could be up to 14 days faster than the more established southern route through the Indian Ocean and the Suez canal.
The 42,000-tonne vessel, carrying a shipment of frozen fish and other goods, is a new "ice class" vessel. It is designed to sail in colder seas and has a stronger hull and protected rudders.
"The trial passage will enable us to explore the operational feasibility of container shipping through the Northern Sea Route and to collect data," Maersk said, underlining that "this is a one-off trial designed to explore an unknown route for container shipping and to collect scientific data."
The route was once impossible due to ice but a de-thawing of the Arctic, combined with advances in shipping, have made it potentially feasible.
In January this year, Arctic sea ice hit a record low and in March an "extreme event" was declared. The sea ice in the Bering strait reached its lowest levels in recorded history as temperatures 30C above average were recorded.
According to figures from the National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Colorado, sea ice cover this winter was less than a third of what it was five years ago.
The route has seen growing marine traffic this summer, with smaller ships carrying cargos of gas and oil already making the journey regularly.
Sune Scheller of Greenpeace Nordic told the Independent he was aware of companies looking at the viability of Arctic shipping and said the change would be "environmentally damaging in a number of ways."
"If these ships were to have an accident then heavy fuel oil in the marine environment is bad. It’s even worse in an Arctic environment. The cold water temperatures slow or halt the natural breakdown of the oil. So it remains in marine environments for a much longer period of time," Scheller said.
Maersk stressed that the route was just a test.
"Currently, we do not see the Northern Sea Route as a commercial alternative to our existing network, which is defined by our customers' demand, trading patterns and population centres," Maersk said in a statement to Business Insider.
The journey is still expensive. The Maersk Line vessel needs an escort of nuclear-powered icebreakers, ships pioneered by Russia that clear a path through ice which can be over a metre thick at speeds of 10 knots (18 km).
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