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Turning the Lens on Arctic Shipping’s New Era

Shipping in Arctic waters is expected to rise as sea ice thins and melts, particularly along Russia’s Northern Sea Route. Bernice Notenboom’s new film Sea Blind looks at the risks and environmental costs involved in Arctic shipping – and plots a path towards a more sustainable industry.

Written byHannah Hoag Published on Mar. 17, 2016 Read time Approx. 8 minutes
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Climate journalist Bernice Notenboom has spent much of the past 20 years travelling to extreme environments. In 2008, she trekked to North Pole, the South Pole and the Cold Pole in Siberia, and she traversed Greenland’s ice cap on skis. During her global adventures, she has reported for National Geographic Traveller and Outside magazine, been a correspondent for a variety of programs on National Public Radio in the U.S., and made films about the many ways climate change is altering the planet and affecting people’s ways of life.

Her latest film, Sea Blind, was unintended, she tells Arctic Deeply. Notenboom was working on a feature film about the future of the Arctic when she realized there was another story she needed to tell about global shipping – and its potential impact on the region.

Melting Arctic sea ice creates the possibility of more shipping in the Arctic, especially along the Northern Sea Route, a shipping lane that extends from the Kara Sea to the Pacific Ocean, running along the Russian coast. In Sea Blind, Notenboom reports from Russia and Rotterdam in an attempt to understand what she sees as a “race to exploit the economic opportunities” of the receding ice – and its environmental impacts.

The film, which debuted in Paris in December at the COP21 climate change meeting, offers a deep dive into our reliance on the shipping industry, its environmental impact and how it is regulated. But the film goes beyond spotlighting problems, it also looks for – and finds – ways to clean up shipping so that it impacts less on the planet, the Arctic in particular.

Arctic Deeply caught up with Notenboom to ask her a few questions about the film and the future of Arctic shipping.

Arctic Deeply: The film takes a closer look at two major events in the Arctic: sea-ice melt and the drive to increase shipping traffic through the Northern Sea Route. How are they in conflict with each other?

Bernice Notenboom: One could argue that a shorter shipping route is better for the environment, because you can shave eight or 10 days off your trip and that means less greenhouse gas emissions. But that doesn’t outweigh the risks we’re taking with increasing shipping in the Arctic. The common mistake people make is that they think retreating sea ice means that we have open water. But it doesn’t necessarily mean there is no ice. The sea ice becomes volatile and unruly. The ice can drift and block places that it has never blocked before, because it was once actually held in place by other ice. All of a sudden we have this real chaos in the Arctic, and that – in combination with increased activity – could actually be really dangerous.

Arctic Deeply: In your reporting, you focus on the Northern Sea Route. How much more traffic does Russia hope to see run along that route in the future?

Bernice Notenboom: There’s not much traffic at the moment. In fact, it is in decline. This year, I think only a handful of ships transited along the Northern Sea Route. You have to get a permit from the Russians and it’s expensive – about 200,000 euros ($222,000). It’s about the same cost as going through the Suez Canal, with a similar ship and tonnage. You do save fuel, but you have to have ice classification and the insurance is more expensive – all these things add up. At the moment, it isn’t viable. Having said that though, it might change. The big container ships spend 10,000 euros ($11,000) per day in fuel costs. Over the span of 10 days, that is quite a bit of money. The cost of fuel needs to be [weighed against] the cost of having to go through that passage.

But it could become feasible if LNG (liquefied natural gas) becomes cheap, and you don’t have to rely on ports – you can just ship from Shanghai via Russia to the ports in Scandinavia, Germany and Rotterdam. Right now, there isn’t any way for these big ships now to bunker [refuel] because the Russian coast doesn’t have any infrastructure.

The shipping industry is stressed at the moment because the price of shipping keeps dropping and competition is very, very strong. If oil prices go back up again, it may become a bit more viable. Right now, oil prices being so cheap, it doesn’t really matter.

Arctic Deeply: Black carbon is one of the pollutants attributed to shipping. What is its environmental impact – and is it more significant in the Arctic?

Bernice Notenboom: Black carbon is emitted everywhere: there are all kinds of sources for it, not just shipping. The biggest one is actually coal plants. Another big source is volcanic ash. And then, of course, the shipping industry.

Shipping by itself is responsible for 8 to 13 percent of the black carbon found in the Arctic, but black carbon is the biggest contributor to climate change after carbon dioxide. It absorbs sunlight in the atmosphere and traps that heat. We had never really studied black carbon because we focused really on CO2, but black carbon is more potent and a lot more serious.

If we start to emit more black carbon because shipping is increasing, and we keep doing that with bunker oil, particularly in Arctic environments, then that will land on the ice and it will accelerate the melt.

There is a strong movement right now – through the film, I joined an organization in Europe called the European Climate Foundation – that is pushing for a ban on bunker fuel, HFO [heavy fuel oil], by 2018. It has been done in Antarctica, why can we not do that in the Arctic?

Arctic Deeply: Are there other environmental or social concerns with Arctic shipping?

Bernice Notenboom: There is also the problem that we didn’t focus on in our film, but we did research on, which is noise pollution. Whale strikes are very common, particularly if humpback whales are feeding in the shipping lanes. That will only increase if we allow shipping in the Arctic, particularly in the Bering Strait and other bottlenecks that ships go through and that also are big feeding grounds. The Chukchi Sea and the walrus there is another example.

It seems like slow steaming – something that [the shipping company] Maersk is promoting a lot – slowing down to 15 or 16 knots, seems to help with the animals and gives them time to get away. But slow steaming also adds time to delivery.

Arctic Deeply: What technology or policies would make Arctic shipping more sustainable?

Bernice Notenboom: It would be very wise if the ships going to the Arctic are ice classified, so they have a hull that is strong that can deal with breaking through ice. They need to have captains on these ships and crew that have experience dealing with ice. The Polar Code that will be enforced next year, on January 1, has some good things in it.

But if you want to go through the Northern Sea Route, you have to have the approval of the Russians. With the Northwest Passage, which may open up, too, there is really nobody out there. At least on the Northern Sea Route there are communities, there’s Murmansk, if you get into trouble. But weaving through these islands in Canada, there are no ports or other infrastructure.

Technology-wise, there are these LNG ships that use and transport LNG. If one got into trouble and lost the LNG, nothing would happen: it would release the gas. That is a very clean way of transporting fuel and also using it. I’m not saying that LNG is the answer for the future, but we’re kidding ourselves if we say we’re going to go completely phase out fossil fuels.

Shipping can be sustainable, but it is not happening. Because they are colossal, they have to transport so much to make it economical and they have to use a fuel that is cheap, otherwise no one can afford it. We questioned that very attitude in our film. Low-sulphur diesel is 50 percent more expensive but people would pay 50 cents more for their pair of shoes if it is from a clean ship. Because the shipment is so massive, you can spread the cost. Sustainability in shipping is really a must, because it is easy.

Arctic Deeply: What’s holding us back from implementing these different policies or technologies on a wider scale?

Bernice Notenboom: What we’ve learned from doing the screenings is that nobody knows anything about shipping. It is out there in the open sea. You would be amazed; even delegates at the climate change summit in Paris were surprised.

You would think that the delegates that are sent by governments would have a handle on every single aspect of what contributes to climate change, but that is not the case at all. They are negotiators and lawyers. They’re there to make a deal: it’s all about dollars and cents, even in climate change.

But nobody really knows what the consequences are for the economy if you have to limit warming to 1.5C (2.7F). What does that mean for an industry? How much money do they have to invest to make sure their CO2 emissions are not contributing more than 1.5C (2.7F) in warming?

To me, that’s fascinating. For shipping, just to put a scrubber on your smoke stack is millions of dollars. When are you going to get that back? That’s a huge investment. A ship’s life is 25 years, and everybody wants to wait until the ship is old before they change over to an LNG ship. Even that whole transition is going to be years away.

Arctic Deeply: You’re a lifelong adventurer and storyteller with a particular passion for snow and ice – what’s next?

Bernice Notenboom: [Filmmaker] Sarah Robertson and I are going back to the feature film The Arctic March. We didn’t really mean to make Sea Blind, but the subject was so urgent we decided to tackle it anyway.

The feature film is about the future of the Arctic. It is based on a conversation that I’ve had about the North Pole, about where it is heading. We want to make it a fascinating journey into what we know about science in the Arctic. Because it is so remote and dangerous to get to, a lot of the technology has to be satellite-based. Can we really predict the future of climate change in the Arctic with satellite technology? How far along are we? Every year there are just more surprises: we can just predict so much and put it into models, and then the models surprise us, too. We’ll be looking at geopolitics, we’re looking at tourism, we’re looking at fishing. The backdrop of all of that is my own Arctic expedition, where I pondered this question. It’s going to be very beautiful to watch and very cinematic.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Sea Blind is showing in Amsterdam and Victoria, Canada on Earth Day on April 22, 2016. Additional screenings will be posted to www.seablind.org

Top image: Bernice Notenboom’s latest film looks at shipping and the future of the Arctic. Here she stands beside a large chunk of sea ice at the North Pole. (Martin Hartley)