MeteoGroup ready for Arctic Route
“Everyone has to build up experience in sailing the Arctic Ocean. But the Weather Room is ready for the challenge; weather data, wave data, and ice data: it’s all at our fingertips,” says Rijk van Egdom, senior nautical meteorologist at MeteoGroup.
New and unknown
Maersk has the honour of being the first shipping company to sail a container vessel through the Northeast Passage. One day soon, the specially designed Venta Maersk will depart Vladivostok and then, some three weeks later, enter the port of Bremen. On board will be MeteoGroup’s SPOS system, a navigation tool that provides data on wind, ice movement, and ocean currents, among other things. The Maersk transport is an experiment to determine viability. They will use this journey to assess, for example, whether or not the ice that stays at sea in the ‘warm months’ obstructs shipping. If the experiment succeeds, it could translate into a major increase in efficiency. An enormous amount of fuel and time can be saved if the route through the Suez Canal can be foregone in favour of the route along northern Russia. It could be the beginning of multiple shipments via this Arctic route.
This route along Russia is a cousin, as it were, to the Northwest Passage, a shipping lane running along northern Canada which has been regularly used for the last few decades. There is another ‘relative’ that should also be kept in mind: the Transpolar Sea Route which passes straight over the geographic North Pole, although this route will not be feasible for commercial traffic for decades. The ice there is present year-round.
One does not just up and sail the Arctic Ocean
Sailing the Arctic waters is demanding for both vessels and crews. René Snoek, master mariner in MeteoGroup’s forecast office, lists several factors in this regard. “For one thing, there aren’t many ships that can sail in this part of the world. The vessel must be freeze tolerant, which means it must be assigned a polar class indicating how much ice pressure it can withstand. The insulation has to be in good shape. The technical system on board must be able to keep the fuel at the proper temperature to prevent it from freezing or becoming too viscous to pump. A lot of ice can build up on deck and in the cargo hold. The ship must be able to remain stable despite this extra weight.” His colleague, Rijk van Egdom, adds: “A ship that sails slowly through the ice is more vulnerable to wind. That, of course, means that the ice build-up cannot put the ship in danger of capsizing.”
Given all this, it also costs more to sail the Arctic. Only well-modified ships can be deployed. But that is not all. If multiple shipping companies opt to use this route, infrastructure will have to be made available. This will include ports, ice breakers, and pilots. “Those are elements that we, as meteorologists are powerless to influence,” says René Snoek. He continues: “But it would be a fantastic challenge to be able to guide ships through this region, both for our former mariners, several of whom have experience sailing in the polar regions, and for us as meteorologists.”
MeteoGroup’s Shipping and Offshore Departments are ready to assist clients, even though requests for that assistance will not be received immediately after the Maersk experiment. This is not only because the water is only free of ice for a short period of time (about three months) and because special ships are needed, but also because of all the uncertainties and unknowns. For example, the whole discussion about the boundaries of the territorial waters has not been settled, and multiple countries still claim the North Pole.
Rijk: “At MeteoGroup, we are well aware of the difficulties and the challenges. There are all kinds of troublesome situations you can find yourself in. Poor visibility and ice floes are just two examples. If the wind turns, perhaps right behind a low-pressure front, all those ice floes may be pushed together and an enormous ice field could suddenly appear off the bow of a ship. You have to be able to anticipate that.” René: “We can really only estimate which problems we might encounter. The region is huge and some of it is still unknown.”
“Although some of it is still unknown, MeteoGroup gained a great deal of experience during the raising of the Kursk in 2001,” continues Rijk van Egdom. “And things went well during assignments on the Bering Sea too. The audits show that we handle ourselves well. The data we used at the time was accurate, so I’m confident the same will be true a few degrees to the north, in the polar region, including when it comes to setting out our expectations for the northern part of the Arctic Ocean. We will all have to gain experience together, and you learn more when you learn together.”
In the middle of nowhere
The northern part of the Arctic Ocean – where the amount of ice that disappears during melts is increasing by the year – is inhospitable. Mark Streuper, Account Manager in MeteoGroup’s Shipping Department: “It’s a very special part of the world, one of the largest natural areas on the planet. That calls for extra caution. What if something happens, for example, if a container falls overboard? And in that vein: who will rescue you in an emergency?” He sees definite possibilities, but there is a multitude of practical issues for which arrangements still must be made. “It’s very exciting, any way you look at it. And now also with the Maersk. I’m keeping very close tabs on it.”
The MeteoGroup Weather Room is ready for the Arctic Route challenge; weather data, wave data, and ice data: it’s all at our fingertips