Feedback Loop: The Voyage of the Christophe de Margerie (and Its Aftermath)

[Photo by Myriams-Fotos via Pixabay]

by Marc Lanteigne

Last month, a record was set within the Northern Sea Route (NSR), in the Arctic Ocean north of Siberia, when the civilian icebreaking vessel Christophe de Margerie successfully completed its voyage from Jiangsu Province in China to the Siberian port city of Sabetta (Сабетта). The vessel, owned by the Russian shipping firm Sovcomflot (Совкомфлот) and designed to carry liquified natural gas (LNG) to markets from the Yamal facilities in the Russian Arctic, left Chinese waters after offloading its LNG supplies and returned to Sabetta on 19 February. The last leg of the journey, from Cape Dezhnev (Mыс Дежнёва) on the Chukchi Peninsula in the Russian Far East, to Sabetta, saw the vessel escorted by the heavy Arktika-class nuclear-powered icebreaker 50 Let Pobedy (50 лет Победы) for the trip through the NSR. This transit was also featured in a short promotional video, released as the vessel was about to complete its journey.

This transit by the Christophe de Margerie marked the first such run using the NSR so early in the year, as normally such voyages are restricted to the summer months. In May 2020, the vessel conducted a previous experimental trip through the NSR outside of the normal shipping window. These voyages not only illustrated Russia’s determination to extend the use of the Northern Sea Route for longer periods, but also the fact that changed climate conditions in the Arctic Ocean have made such winter transits more viable.

Mr Igor Tonkovidov, President and CEO of Sovcomflot, praised the successful test run and suggested that the time was soon coming when the NSR could be usable throughout the year. This experiment in ‘off-season’ NSR shipping takes place in the wake of previous calls by the government of Vladimir Putin to bring the amount of cargo transported through the NSR annually up to eighty million tonnes by 2024. This goal was challenged by the onset of the global pandemic in early 2020 and the resulting drops in global energy demands. However, with fossil fuel prices beginning to return to pre-Covid 19 levels, possibly reflecting growing international financial confidence, the prospects for gas shipping from Siberia may be looking up in the short term.

As well, with China’s economy showing stronger signs of a rebound going into 2021, energy demands in the country may also be rising. At the same time, Beijing has recently been calling for the resumption of efforts to move away from coal and towards greener alternatives, including natural gas. Last month, it was announced by the Russian gas concern Novatek (НОВАТЭК) that it had penned a fifteen-year LNG sales agreement with Shanghai-based Shenergy Group (Shenneng jituan youxian gongsi 申能集团有限公司), further reflecting Chinese energy needs.

It was announced this week by Russia’s Federal Marine and River Transport Agency (Rosmorrechflot / Росморречфлот), that the total amount of cargo carried through the NSR had reached 4.81 million tonnes during January-February 2021, with LNG and natural gas condensate representing two-thirds of the cargo transported. Weak ice conditions contributed to a busy shipping season in the NSR during 2020, with the number of vessels using the waterway reaching sixty-four last year, up from thirty-seven in 2019.

Arctic ice levels during 2020 were at their second-lowest ever recorded, (with 2012 still holding that title). Thus, the transit of the Christophe de Margerie was described by a British expert as ‘an irony of our time, filled with symbolism,’ given the direct links between fossil fuel burning and sea ice erosion.

Naming ceremony for the Christophe de Margerie LNG carrier, June 2017 [Photo via Wikimedia Commons]

Although discussions about the exact timetables have varied, an August 2020 report in the journal Nature Climate Change argued that under current conditions the central Arctic could be free of ice in the summer months by 2035. This month, another set of alarming statistics were published regarding the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic Ocean, (formally known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation or AMOC), which may be weakening to levels not seen in centuries, with the cause being cited as anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming.

The Gulf Stream, which carries water from tropical regions northwards to the Atlantic-Arctic region, is a major source of planetary heat redistribution, and has been affected by Arctic climate change, including the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet in recent years as well as the appearance of a ‘cold blob’ of comparatively cooler water south of Greenland, which would appear to indicate that less warm water is reading that part of the ocean. Should the AMOC cease functioning completely, (a ‘tipping point’ scenario), among the predicted results [pdf] would be cooler temperatures in the northern hemisphere, increased precipitation in Europe, as possible cascade effects in other parts of the world.

New reports from Russia itself have also pointed to an ongoing warming trend in the Arctic, as according to studies referred to the country’s news agency TASS, the end of this century could see greenhouse gasses raising the average temperature of the Arctic by twenty degrees.

The story of the Christophe de Margerie illustrates the two-sided coin that climate change in the Arctic is producing in Russia, as on one hand the opportunities for increased shipping and extractive industrial activity continue to grow, but on the other, the local environmental effects, including incidents of sinkholes in the Siberian tundra, along with thawing permafrost, demonstrate the dangers facing the region as these economic activities continue. And Russia is hardly alone in facing the question of how to balance the Arctic’s economic opportunities with growing evidence of potentially unstoppable environmental effects in the far north.