First Container Ship Follows Arctic Route

4th September 2018

For the first time ever, Maersk Line, the world’s largest container shipping company, has sent a container vessel on an Arctic route without ice-breakers. The 42-tonne ship, the Venta Maersk, departed from Vladivostok on the east coast of Russia at the end of August, carrying a cargo of frozen fish to St Petersburg on the west coast.

This journey would usually follow a southerly route, passing along the south coast of Asia and then back to Russia through the Suez Canal. However, on this occasion, the ship instead went north through the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska, and east along Russia’s northerly coast.

The one-off exploratory voyage was made possible by unusually low levels of ice in the region – an ‘extreme event’ was declared in March as ice levels in the Bering Sea reached a record low, following unusually warm temperatures during February.

The Northern Sea Route can reduce journey times between Asia and Europe by a week or two, but it is usually costlier because of the need for the ice-breakers that lead the ships through the ice. The Venta Maersk is not the first vessel to follow the Northern Sea Route without ice-breakers – ships carrying oil and gas regularly do so and marine traffic on this route is steadily increasing as ice levels drop – but it is the first ever container ship to make the journey alone.

Environmental groups such as Greenpeace have raised concerns about the use of heavy fuel oil in Arctic shipping lanes, which would inevitably lead to increased air pollution and black carbon particulates falling on to the ice. They say that an oil spill in the extreme cold is more potentially damaging to marine life, because the natural breakdown of oil takes longer than in warmer seas.