Shipping routes through the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free by the middle of this century as a result of global warming, according to a UN panel of scientists.
In the meantime, shipping companies are seeking technological solutions to the problem of ice.
Russian company Shvabe Holding has announced that it is testing a ship-mounted laser cannon that can cut through ice.
“We developed this ship-mounted laser for exploration and development in the Arctic, which has difficult ice conditions where platforms must operate and ships must pass through. This laser works like glass cutters, snipping away at the ice, and then the ship using its own weight can push through,” Shvabe Holding CEO Sergey Maksin said at the international exhibition Defense Expo.
He added that if the tests are successful, the lasers can also be placed on lightweight ice-class vessels operating on northern Siberian rivers, where ice is thinner, and could also be used to cut ice heading toward oil and gas platforms in the Arctic seas, making it easier to break the ice up.
The company – part of the Russian state-owned technology business Rostec – says that first deliveries of the device can be expected in 2015.
Last year scientists from the Astrofizika National Laser Systems Centre in Russia reported that they had developed a high power marine laser system (SMLK) for icebreaking. It uses a fibre laser with a fibre-optic cable installation, guidance and focusing hardware to aim and focus a laser beam. The development team said that a scale-model SMLK had confirmed the fundamental ability of a powerful laser to destroy ice cover to a thickness of 1-2 metres when using a fibre laser with a continuously radiated power of 30 kW. They suggested that more powerful SMLK systems could be installed on nuclear and diesel icebreakers if their power plants are sufficient to supply a more powerful laser system.
Earlier this year, shipping companies in China and Japan announced that they will start a regular service to carry Siberian natural gas across the Arctic Ocean to East Asia. Mitsui OSK Lines and China Shipping Development will ship liquefied natural from one of the remotest locations on earth — the Yamal LNG facility being developed in western Siberia — to urban areas in China and Japan. A joint venture between the two companies is to spend $US932 million on three LNG carriers equipped with ice breakers. The vessels will be built by Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering of South Korea and could be operating as soon as 2018.
Meanwhile, Russia is building the world’s largest nuclear-powered icebreaker. The 173 metre ship is being built by the Baltiysky Zavod shipyard in St Petersburg and is planned to be completed by 2017.
The Arctic Ocean route between Europe and Asia is 40 per cent shorter than the conventional voyage through the Suez Canal, offering substantial savings to shipping companies if operational and safety issues can be overcome.
Last year, 71 ships crossed the Arctic Ocean between Europe and Asia, compared with four in 2010, according to Japan’s transportation ministry. Some estimates predict that Arctic shipping could account for 25 per cent of cargo trade between Europe and Asia by 2030.