Maersk, the world's largest container line, is about to test the frigid waters of the Arctic in a trial of shorter shipping lanes that could become viable as warmer temperatures open up the Northern Sea Route.
On or around Sept. 1, Denmark-based Maersk plans to send its first container ship through the Arctic to explore whether the once inhospitable route could become feasible in the future. Many analysts see the test as a turning point for both the shipping industry and the Arctic.
Over the past decade, as Earth has warmed, global shipping companies have increasingly eyed the Arctic as a way to cut precious — and expensive — travel time. Some shipping companies, including Maersk's main rival, China-based Cosco, are already plying Arctic waters carrying heavy equipment, such as wind turbines.
However, conditions have been seen as too harsh and unpredictable for massive shipping containers. Now Maersk is going to give it a try with what it says is a one-off voyage. It is sending the Venta Maersk — a new ship with a reinforced hull and a capacity of 3,600 containers — into the polar sea.
Malte Humpert, the founder and senior fellow of the Arctic Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, says Maersk's decision signals the next step in the development of Arctic shipping.
"It's not a major, dramatic shift, it's just a kind of sequential development," he Humpert says. "The ice is melting and more things are becoming possible in the Arctic, and with that, of course, ... comes enhanced risk for the environment."
In a statement to NPR, Maersk says it does "not see the Northern Sea Route as an alternative to our usual routes. We plan new services according to our customers' demand, trading patterns and population centers."
The company says it is dispatching Venta Maersk in the Arctic on "a trial to explore an unknown route for container shipping and to collect scientific data."
Humpert says Maersk wants to gain some experience in the Arctic, which will likely open up more possibilities in the future. He says the Northern Sea Route could slice about two weeks off the journey from Asia to Europe. Venta Maersk is expected to travel from Vladivostok, in Russia's Far East, to the Baltic seaport of St. Petersburg.
Even so, cutting travel time does not guarantee cost savings. Humpert says there is no infrastructure in the Arctic, and unlike the traditional Vladivostok-to-St. Petersburg route through the Suez Canal, there are no transshipment options along the way.
"The only way to make a giant ship with ... containers work is if you have a dozen or so ports along the way where you offload a thousand containers and you take on another thousand containers," he says. "That's kind of how global shipping works."
Paul Bingham, a transportation and international trade economist with the Economical Development Research group, says Venta Maersk is an "ice-class vessel," capable of going through about 3 feet of unconsolidated ice. He says that makes the ship strong enough to withstand the rigors of the route, but only for about three months of the year.
"For many of these routes, for some portion of the year for certain vessels, they would require quite expensive Russian icebreaker escort in front of their vessel," Bingham says. That, he says, would make it certainly much more limited in terms of attractiveness to a lot of shippers."
Bingham says Maersk will likely look at a number of metrics, such as speed, fuel consumption and how maneuverable the vessel is in the ice.
"They'll be measuring air temperature and wind speed ... probably even be monitoring the crew in terms of their performance for when they have to be out on deck for whatever reason in the exposed air," he says.
Bingham says Maersk will likely also be measuring how the cargo fares on the cold journey. But that shouldn't be much of a worry — the Venta Maersk will be carrying mainly frozen fish on its maiden voyage to the Arctic.