Secret military technologies could be the key to sustainable navigation in the Arctic, including the protection of whales and other wildlife.
Vladimir Poutine lobbied for year-round shipping through Russianorth of the Arctic as a new passage from Europe to Asia.
It comes as the COP26 climate summit is is preparing to discuss ecological navigation corridors Wednesday this week.
But there are a myriad of challenges facing anyone looking to navigate what was once impassable ice.
What is that?
The Northern Sea Route (NSR) stretches from the Bering Sea, beyond Siberia and northern Russia, emptying into the North Sea between the United Kingdom and Norway.
Access to frigid waters along the country’s northern shores has become easier in recent decades due to thinning ice and longer ice-free periods as the Earth warms.
The route cuts the journey between Europe and East Asia by around 19 days, potentially reducing CO2 emissions, but also raising other environmental hazards like oil spills that are difficult to clean up.
It also offers an alternative option to crossing the Suez Canal bottleneck or the threats to the Horn of Africa and the Strait of Malacca.
With billions of dollars already invested in developing the route, scientists say it is now imperative to ensure that shipping in the region is managed, rather than halted.
Dr Eero Rinne, Associate Professor at Svalbard University Center and expert in Arctic geophysics says that more road use is more about when, not if.
“I would say this is something that is going to realistically increase, and it cannot be stopped, it has to be managed – done in the safest way possible,” Dr Rinne told Sky News.
“If you have a container in Korea, it might actually produce less CO2 to get it through the Northern Sea Route, because it’s shorter.
“But on the other hand it’s a difficult equation because if you go through the NSR you might want to invest in a more powerful vessel which means a bigger engine which means you need more. of fuel to drive it. “
In February of this year – when the Arctic ice is at its thickest – tanker Christophe de Margerie completed the first NSR navigation at this point in the season.
The boss of Sovcomflot, the Russian company that operates the vessel and has invested in the NSR, said he was demonstrating the validity of the route.
What are the problems?
One of the main concerns regarding the increase in ship traffic is noise pollution from ships – especially the effect on the native whale population.
Bowhead whales, beluga whales and narwhals all make their home in northern waters and could be disturbed by the noisy propulsion systems of ships.
As the propellers move through the water, bubbles form and collapse in their wake in a very noisy process called cavitation.
This can lead to noises of up to 180 decibels – enough to destroy a human’s hearing – and can be heard 100 miles away.
Noise spreads further underwater and can inhibit the way whales communicate, especially between potential mates and families.
Dr Lauren McWhinnie, of Heriot Watt University, said: “It’s like humans in a pub, trying to communicate important information. You might miss the call for the last round of drinks. [because of the noise]. “
“80% and more of the noise [from a ship] is linked to the propeller itself, ”she added.
But while container ships using the route might not cause as much of a problem, Russia is already using locations along the NSR to extract fossil fuels from the Arctic.
Dr Rinne said: “Gas and oil probably make up the majority of the traffic [in the NSR], and unfortunately it will most likely stay that way. “
He added: “Exploring for oil in the Arctic is one of the things we really shouldn’t be doing – as a person doing it. climate change research, I think arctic oil should be left where it is.
What can be done?
Scientists are disappointed with the Russian Prime Minister does not attend COP26 summit and discuss the matter.
Dr McWhinnie said: “I think it’s disappointing. When you don’t have all the players at the table, the chances of success become slightly lower.”
She believes the world’s navies may have the answers to a more sustainable use of the NSR because of their expertise in ensuring their ships can go unnoticed.
“The military absolutely knows how to operate silent propellers – because that’s what our military depend on for their submarines.
“The problem is, a lot of these specifications come with huge amounts of secrecy, because it costs them billions of dollars to design in the first place.”
Professor Mehmet Atlar, of the Department of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering at the University of Strathclyde, said the reduction in “aviation means additional” complex thrusters “are needed to help power ships.
He said the military was unwilling to share its knowledge due to “military confidentiality” and “national security”.
“Otherwise, the technology is there to apply,” he said.
But the cost of the “complex thrusters” should be borne by the shipping companies, he added.
Dr McWhinnie added that scientists are working on other measures to protect wildlife, including efforts to map where whales feed, mate and give birth to protect them from interference with ships.
There are also the political difficulties of operating so close to Russia.
President Putin has previously said he is keen to welcome other countries on the road – “we are not going to restrict anyone,” he said, according to the TASS news agency.
But Dr Rinne says any ship passing through the NSR will need a Russian icebreaker to travel with it.
He warned of the potential risks to crews, as Russian search and rescue standards “might be a little different” from those expected by other countries.