World’s Largest Shipping Company Heads Into Arctic As Global Warming Opens The Way

By Jackie Northam

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.