Thinning ice in the Arctic is making new shipping lanes possible. Olivier Dessibourg writes about a new breed of ice breaking vessels that can clear wider swathes of ice to boost the development of global shipping lanes in the Arctic. The article appeared in this month’s New Scientist on-line magazine.
THE clank of hammers, the grind of machinery and the crackle of welding torches echo in a seemingly endless shed at the Arctech Helsinki shipyard in Finland. Since June, about 200 workers have been assembling the skeleton of the Baltika, the first of a new breed of ice-breaking ship designed to cut a wide path through Arctic ice with its asymmetric hull. On completion early next year, Baltika will enter service under the Russian flag, clearing the way for large ships bound for ports like St Petersburg in the Gulf of Finland. Baltika will be in the vanguard of global shipping’s rush into the Arctic. Thinning ice is already luring vessels to the waters off Russia’s northern coast, which offer a shorter route from Europe to Asia than the typical passage through the Suez Canal. In 2012, 46 ships were granted passage by Russia’s Northern Sea Route Administration. This year, the number is already over 250. At 76 metres long by 20 metres wide, the Baltika will use its unique asymmetric hull to cut swathes through the ice. Each of the three engine pods mounted around the hull can rotate to deliver thrust in any direction. These azimuth thrusters allow the vessel to swing round and attack the ice at an angle of up to 30 degrees (see diagram). Meanwhile, fuel and bilge water is pumped around inside the hull to shift the vessel’s centre of gravity for optimal ice-breaking. The idea is for the ship to be able to make headway in ice up to 60 centimetres thick, while carving a channel 50 metres wide – enough for large container ships to follow. The Baltika is expected to stay in the Gulf of Finland, but subsequent boats of its design could help open the Northern Sea Route to global shipping traffic. That includes oil and gas resources from the Arctic, which Russia is keen to develop. Should such shipments go awry, Baltika will also come equipped to help clean up oil spills. The vessel will boast an advanced petroleum-recovery system suitable for operation even in heavy seas. “Again, this is made possible with the ship moving sideways, against the spill, and sucking the oil into a 900-cubic-metre internal tank, which can separate the oil from the water,” says Willberg. In the shipyard, the Baltika is still mostly raw steel. Huge hull components made in Kaliningrad, Russia, will soon be outfitted and joined together. If all goes to plan, Baltika will be in the water by November and breaking Arctic ice before next year’s spring thaw.