LNG tanker completes first winter Northern Sea Route crossing without an escort

As Arctic sea ice conditions continue to deteriorate, winter trips such as this will likely become more common.

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Last month, the LNG tanker Eduard Toll made history as the first ship to cross Russia’s Northern Sea Route in winter without the help of an icebreaker.

Owned by shipping company Teekay Gas Group, the vessel, which has its own icereaking capacity, departed from South Korea in December, reaching the Sabetta terminal of Russia’s Yamal LNG project ahead of schedule in mid-January. The ship then transported liquefied natural gas from Sabetta to Montoir, France.

Last year, another icebreaking LNG tanker, the Christophe de Margerie, become the first ship to make a summer Northern Sea Route transit of any kind without icebreaker assistance, but that voyage was made during the summer.

Teekay CEO Mark Kremin told Trade Winds News that the Eduard Toll “broke ice 1.8 metres thick at speeds [of] five knots astern in constant darkness, passing polar bears along the way”.

The Eduard Toll is the fourth of 15 ships like the it (Arc7 LNG) that are being built to service the Yamal LNG project, a $27 billion Arctic gas project funded by Chinese banks and controlled by Russia’s Novatek. The project hopes to produce 16.5 million tons of super-cooled gas annually by 2019.

The winter passage may be a sign of things to come as the Arctic continues to warm. January saw another monthly record low for average sea ice in the region, a phenomenon that was typically reserved for warmer months.

“Now we are seeing winter really get into the act as well,” NSIDC director Mark Serreze told Discover Magazine. “The shrinking Arctic sea ice cover is no longer something that just stands out in summer.”

While sea ice cover was down, the success of Eduard Toll can also be attributed to thinner ice in general. While Arctic sea ice typically creates layers up to 10 feet thick over multiple winters, warmer weather is stopping this progress. That leaves ice only around three feet thick, which is easier for vessels like the Eduard Toll to navigate as they are designed to break through thin ice.

“I was a bit surprised they were able to go through that Northern Sea Route this time of year,” Jeremy Mathis, the director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Arctic Research Program, told Mashable. “That is indicative of how thin the ice is becoming in the Arctic.”

This paradox — taking advantage of a more open Arctic, which is a result of climate change, to deliver fossil fuels — is not lost on some.

“It’s like a heavy smoker using his tracheotomy to smoke two cigarettes at once,” Sarah North, senior oil strategist for Greenpeace International, told the Independent.