The world’s second-largest economy plans to take advantage of melting Arctic sea ice to speed the delivery of goods to North America and European markets, but at what cost to fragile environments? 

Icebreaker ‘Xue Long’ became the first Chinese vessel to complete a voyage through the Northwest Passage on 6th September, as part of its mission to circumnavigate the Arctic.

As global warming and the retreat of sea ice makes Arctic seaways more accessible, state-owned Cosco – which is China’s largest shipping group – has been exploring the potential of the Arctic as a new and reliable global trade route.

Using the environmentally sensitive Northwest Passage would allow Chinese cargo ships to achieve faster voyages, whilst avoiding the risk of monsoons in the Indian Ocean, eliminating fees for passing through the Suez and Panama canals, and avoiding armed pirates prevalent on some traditional routes.

China’s official government news agency says a scientific icebreaker was used to venture through Canada’s Northwest Passage to test the viability of sailing Chinese cargo ships through the environmentally fragile route that links the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Arctic expert and professor Rob Huebert, who tracked the M/V Xue Long’s voyage using satellite imagery, said he was surprised the Chinese were so open about their intentions for the Northwest Passage.

“The Chinese are preparing for a very substantial increase in the amount of shipping” (using this route), Prof. Huebert said. “They have given us clear notice this is going to happen.”

Environmentalists have expressed concern over the risks of increased shipping traffic to the pristine Arctic ecosystems, from both deliberate and accidental discharges from shipping.

MARPOL requires oily sludge to be disposed of in port-based reception facilities. However, the very limited existence of port-side infrastructure in the Artic region, combined with the cost of disposing of waste using port reception facilities even when they are available, provides clear incentives for the illegal dumping of oily wastes in the region. Given the large volume of oily sludge and waste fluid produced by any sizable vessel, only a small proportion of these materials would need to be illegally discharged, for significant environmental damage to be caused.

Illegal release of oil and oily sludge causes oiling of animals and birds, and is also toxicity at an invisible level to marine and terrestrial ecosystems. Given the cold ambient temperatures in the region, contamination typically lasts for years in ocean sediment and other elements of the marine environment, often being increasingly concentrated as the contaminants convey upwards from prey to prey within marine and coastal food-chains.

If such environmental impacts are to be minimized, as vessel activity increases in the Arctic, the management of regular discharges from all vessels will need to be seriously managed.

Canada claims sovereignty over the Northwest Passage based on historic title – a status founded by the Canadian Inuit community’s historical usage of these waters. Prof. Huebert claims it will be important for Canada to ensure that Chinese shipping companies are obligated to request Canadian authorization before they venture into the Northwest Passage. Furthermore, Prof Huebert added;

“We need to get Arctic patrol vessels built. We need to get the Coast Guard better funded and we need the facilities for better surveillance and enforcement capability.”

Meanwhile, a recent technological development has occurred in this battle, in that UK company FTL has pioneered the development of synthetic DNA tracer technology as a simple and inexpensive method of marking vessel cargoes and other hydrocarbons, including residues found in slops and bilges. This tracer provides indisputable proof of source and will act as a strong deterrent in the fight to eradicate the unwelcome practice of using illegal “magic pipes” for making over-board discharges.

Researched, developed and tested at the respected forensic science laboratories of Minton, Treharne & Davies Ltd. in Cardiff, this patented synthetic DNA-based tracer can be coded with a signature number issued to each and every vessel registered by the IMO, (the International Maritime Organisation), thereby adding a permanent and unique “fingerprint” to all onboard fluids irrespective of whether they are oil or water based. Applying the technology to oily waste water means, for example, that should any such fluids be discharged to the ocean, and a sample is later collected and analysed, the offending vessel can be held accountable and ultimately prosecuted.

It may be a challenge for Canada to prevent countries from using the Northwest Passage as a trade route, given the melting ice-cap, but it is understood to be Canada’s aim to require vessels to seek authorisation to enter these Arctic waters. Making the adoption of FTL’s synthetic DNA-based tracer technology a requirement for all vessels passing through the Northwest Passage may be one way in which Canada can demonstrate to other nations their commitment to enforce MARPOL in the region.

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Article by: Forecast Technology
Article Ref: The Globe and Mail |Robert Fife & Steven Chase | 10th September 2017
Image Credit: China’s Xinhua News Agency