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Freighter Makes First-Of-Its-Kind Transit Of Northwest Passage

A Danish shipping company announced Friday the first-ever voyage of a large commercial freighter through the Northwest Passage — a journey made possible by the disappearance of Arctic ice due to global warming.

The 75,000 ton Nordic Orion, en route from Vancouver, Canada, to a port in Finland, completed the polar portion of the route this week. The freighter is scheduled to arrive at its destination, the Finnish port of Pori, on Oct. 7, according to Reuters. The ship is delivering coal to Ruukki Metals, a Finnish steel producer.

The news comes as a U.N.-assembled panel of scientists issued a report on Friday concluding that human activity "has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century."

The Globe and Mail says the Nordic Orion is "the first bulk carrier to make the voyage, which has lured explorers for more than a century and has long been eyed as a commercial route."

However, that the voyage is only possible because of climate change is not without irony. By using the Northwest Passage, the vessel took a 1,000 nautical-mile shortcut, bypassing the Panama Canal, saving time and money, and reducing its greenhouse gas emissions because of fuel savings, Sakari Kallo, senior vice president of metals production at Ruukki, tells Reuters.

"By using this route, the voyage is around a week shorter than using the Panama Canal, so overall we are paying less in freight costs," Kallo says.

Nordic Bulk Carriers, the Danish operator of the ship, says the shortcut allowed the ship to carry 15,000 more tons of coal than Panama Canal's depth limit would have allowed. The firm said the reduced time at sea will save $80,000 in fuel costs.

Even so, not just any freighter could have made the voyage, the operator says.

"MV NORDIC ORION is an ice-class 1A ship," explains Christian Bonfils, managing director of Nordic Bulk Carriers A/S, says in a news release. "These ships are designed and built to operate in the harsh conditions of the Arctic."

In March, we reported on a study which forecast that commercially viable trans-Arctic shipping lanes between North America and Russia or Asia would be open by mid-century. Smaller vessels have also begun to cross the region in the summer months, when there is less ice.

The successful passage by the Nordic Orion has sparked concern in Canada about Arctic sovereignty, The Globe notes, quoting James Given, president of the Seafarers' International Union of Canada.

"The Canadian government needs to take a firm stand on shipping via the Northwest passage in order to safeguard the environment and to enforce Canada's sovereignty," Given told The Globe in an email. "There must be a net benefit to Canada, and Canadian stakeholders in the shipping industry, not just an open door to Flag of Convenience Shipping to increase their profit margins by shaving miles off of their shipping routes."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.

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