A bit of an unlikely question for Australians, right? Wrong. Or, at least, it could well be wrong in the not-too-distant future.
Europe-Asia… and thence to Australia
About 15 per cent of all of Australia’s containerised cargo comes from / goes to Europe. Containers are normally transhipped into / out of Australia via Singapore or Port Klang (Malaysia), but they could be transhipped via several different places.
Then there’s the question of what route a vessel might take. Normally, this is a pretty straightforward answer: the Suez Canal. But imagine, just for a minute, that the Suez Canal became impassable for several weeks for some reason.
Other than Suez, what other routes are there? Well, there’s always the possibility of routing around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. The trip around the Cape from Europe to Asia isn’t quite as far as you might think (see table below) and can sometimes even make economic sense. Fuel prices for IFO380 are about US$368 (Singapore) at the moment, but they have been as low as US$155 (Singapore) in the not-too distant past. When fuel prices, and a variety of other costs are low, the trip around the Cape can look more attractive that Suez given that the Canal Authority will charge for passage.
What’s the shortest, fastest, cheapest Europe-Asia route?
So what’s all this got to do with ice? Well, the shortest route from Europe to Asia isn’t via Suez.
It’s via Russia.
Specifically, it’s via the Russian Arctic Sea Route. This table showing a trip between Rotterdam (Netherlands) and Hong Kong (China) puts it all in perspective:
Distance in nautical miles / Route taken by ship / Rough boxship fuel costs US$
- 8,963 nautical miles- Russian Northern Sea Route – $2.34 million
- 9,529 nautical miles – Canadian North West Passage – $2.49 million
- 9,988 nautical miles – Suez Canal Route – $2.61 million (note: plus canal fees)
- 13,437 nautical miles – Cape of Good Hope Route – $3.5 million
- 14,843 nautical miles – Panama Canal Route – $3.87 million (note: plus canal fees)
There are a variety of other costs that haven’t been included here – port costs, daily running costs (small costs compared to fuel,
but they add up to considerable amounts on long voyages) and a variety of other costs. Fuel costs change greatly over time. This table also doesn’t take into account other important factors such as remoteness, lack of infrastructure, search and rescue etc. There’s actually another route, HK to Rotterdam via Cape Horn (at the very tip of South America) – it’s 17,400 nautical miles long and we do not consider it further here.
On a superficial analysis, it’s clear that the cheapest, shortest, fastest route is via the Arctic, specifically via the Russian Northern Sea Route. The multiplicity of routes is also of interest in the context of supply chain resilience. Although the Suez Canal is, of course, a vital waterway, it’s not the only route. In the rare event of the Suez Canal being blocked there are at least two viable routes that ships can go right now (via the Cape of Good Hope, via Panama). And, in the near future, there will likely be two more routes – one over the Canadian Arctic and another over the Russian Arctic.
Arctic is becoming ever-more navigable for international shipping
At the moment, the area within the Arctic Circle is entirely covered by ice for the nine months from November to July. For much of the year it is completely inaccessible to ships without an icebreaker.
We’ve known for some years now that, alas, the Arctic is melting. It will likely melt sufficiently to allow the opening of navigable trans-Arctic shipping routes up to each September. This is likely to happen before mid-century. A merchant shipping trial took place a couple of years ago when a Maersk vessel sailed from Vladivostok (Far East Russia) to St Petersburg (Far West Russia) over the Arctic via the Northern Sea Route.
Of course, the world being the way the world is, sometimes things go wrong. It’s a bit of shocker, we know.
Even when the ice retreats each year, ships can (and do) get stuck in the ice. They also veer off course because of ice and could potentially run aground. All of which leads us back to the beginning of this article. Will the ship carrying your cargo get stuck in ice?
A world-first study
Statisticians at the University of Helsinki, Finland, have carried out a world-first risk-assessment and have calculated just how likely is for ships in different categories to get stuck in ice. That data will help everyone work out what the risk is to ships using the Russian Northern Sea Route. The number-crunchers trawled a mass of open-source data and also used satellite data to set up their statistical models.
The statistical study received funding from the Lloyd’s Register Foundation, a charity that supports engineering-related education, public engagement and the application of research. Funds were also received from the European Union, the Academy of Finland, and the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science.
Results were, on reflection, wholly unsurprising
Readers may be wholly unsurprised to learn that whether or not a ship is likely to get stuck largely depends upon the type of ship and the thickness of the ice.
The statisticians concluded that their “Category A” ships (a group typically comprised of ships such as Russian nuclear-powered ice-breakers) were most unlikely to get stuck. Categories B and C (a variety of marine craft including commercial, cargo-carrying ships) where much more likely to get stuck. Category B ships were about 7.5 times more likely to get stuck than Category A vessels and Category C ships were 22.5 times more likely to get stuck than Category A vessels.
The likelihood of getting stuck also rose dramatically for all ships as the ice increased in thickness. The likelihood of Category A ships (remember: these are the Russian nuclear-powered icebreakers) getting stuck rose by 167% when the concentration of ice rose from about 70% to 90% and above. Category B ships suffered a 200% increased likelihood of getting stuck and Category C ships experienced a 125% increased likelihood.
Other than whether or not there was thick ice present, the local geography did not change how likely a ship was to get stuck.
“For ships operating in ice-infested waters, the risk of becoming beset in ice is a hazard with potentially serious safety, environmental and economic consequences. Therefore, the risk of besetting must be carefully considered in the planning of any Arctic voyage or operation,” the authors wrote.
Or, as future Russian vessel traffic controllers might, one-day, say to transiting ship masters:
“Удачной поездки. И не застревай во льду!“