LNG Tanker Makes History By Crossing The Arctic In Winter Without An Icebreaker Escort

The Eduard Toll. Credit: Teekay

When ships have to cross the Arctic in winter times, it is expected that the ice that forms from the intense cold would be an obstacle for most ships. Unfortunately, Climate Home News reports that the Eduard Toll, a liquidized natural gas tanker, managed to move through the Arctic sea ice without assistance from an icebreaker escort.

While this may seem like a good thing, it is worth noting that the gas tanker is normally escorted through the ice by an icebreaker. As it made its journey from South Korea to Russia and finally France, the Eduard Toll managed to navigate and break through the ice on its own.

The Eduard Toll is equipped and designed to handle thin amounts of sea ice. It was cutting through ice that was 1.8m thick. The Arctic sea ice is usually thicker than what the gas tanker is capable of handling, so this news that it can now withstand the Arctic ice is troubling.

For comparison, another gas tanker, with a similar design for breaking thin levels of sea ice, was able to navigate the Arctic sea ice in the summer of 2017. Even in the summer, the ice layers are still thick so this feat is still remarkable and worrying.

This will not be the last time that a gas tanker, or other ships capable of breaking thin sea ice, will be able to break through the Arctic sea ice without assistance. As the sea ice continues to melt away, more ships will be able to pass through with relative ease.

The Melting Arctic

The Arctic sea ice levels constantly change throughout the year as the seasons change. Normally, it reaches the maximum levels of sea ice between February and April. Since we have been measuring the sea ice levels in 1979 there has been a clear trend emerging.

The NASA-supported National Snow and Ice Data Center collected these data since 1979 and together they showed that the ice levels were continuously decreasing. Roughly speaking, the maximum ice level has dropped by 2.8% every decade.

Global sea ice levels have shown a continued decrease since we started measuring them in the 1970s. This trend continues today and is expected to continue in the future. Credit: NSIDC NASA Team/Eric Holthaus

When the NSIDC team looked at both the Arctic and Antarctic, they found that the sea ice numbers were at the lowest they have ever been. Based on satellite imaging and data collected, NASA estimates that the total sea ice for both poles is about 6.26 million square miles. This is 790,000 square miles, which is larger than Mexico, less than the average minimum that was measured between 1981 and 2010.

NASA contributes this loss to warmer-than-average temperatures, series of storms, and unfavorable winds that all worked together to prevent sea ice formation.

This decline is beneficial to gas tankers like the Eduard Toll but has grave consequences on the animals that inhabit the space as well as what lies beneath the ice.

With less and less ice to cover the sea, polar bears are losing their hunting grounds and habitable areas. Polar bears depend on having ice so that they can hunt for seals, which is their main diet. Polar bears use a lot of calories to sustain themselves, so they have to be able to consume a lot of food to compensate for that loss.

With fewer sea ice to use, polar bears are having to extend the range of their hunting ground, which causes them to use more energy and calories. This means they now need even more food to sustain themselves.

A polar bear jumping between fragments of ice. As the sea ice loss continues, there will be fewer fragments for the polar bear to navigate on. Credit: National Geographics/Ralph Lee Hopkins

It is not just polar bears being affected by the melting Arctic. The permafrost of the Arctic is also melting away as the sea ice melts. This release of permafrost poses a danger to us. For instance, the permafrost in Alaska is melting and bacteria within them are consuming the excess organisms and organic materials that were frozen in the permafrost.

This consumption of organic materials results in a large amount of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere, which further adds to climate change, which then results in the abnormal temperatures we see in the Arctic.

According to Dr. Mark Serreze, director of the snow and ice center, the ice loss for this year started earlier than usual. The consequence of this is that there are more dark open ocean areas, which are absorbing a lot of heat that would otherwise be reflected back by ice and snow. This creates a feedback look that results in a quicker and earlier loss of sea ice.

Climate Change And Consequences

Scientists attribute the loss of the sea ice to climate change because of the increased temperatures that are a direct result of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows data that clearly links climate change to the loss of sea ice.

The IPCC notes that many of the changes we are seeing today in the Arctic are showing a trend that is consistent with predictions that were made by general circulation models (GCMs) on how climate change would affect the world.

While the Arctic is experiencing change because of climate change, scientists are unsure if these affect the Antarctic. Last year the Antarctic experienced some loss of sea ice, which was a new thing because previous trends showed an increase in sea ice. More work is needed to understand if this is a rare occurrence or a new trend that will lead to a loss of sea ice in the Antarctic.

The continued loss of sea ice and change in the Arctic are consistent with many climate change prediction models.

There are already reports of creaking and changes being made in the Antarctic, so the continued focus is important. As we continue to address and deal with the consequence of climate change and global warming, these problems are persisting. With things like the Paris Agreement underway, we must continue to find solutions to stop, slow, or even reverse the effects of climate change to ensure that the environment does not continue to decline.

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