Now That Climate Change Cleared The Way For Arctic Shipping, We Just Need A Better Icebreaker

A new ship can crack nearly twice the ice, which could open up even more of the frozen north and change how we move resources around the globe.

Climate change is gradually making shipping in the Arctic easier. In 2010, just 10 ships took the route from Europe to Asia via the Arctic Ocean. In 2011, 34 ships made it. Last year, the number was up to 46. This year, there will be at least 250. All of which is good news, economically-speaking: the trip is 40% shorter than the Suez Canal.


Until the Arctic completely melts more, though, most ships will still require some kind of icebreaker to lead the way. And that is where Finnish shipbuilder Arctech Helsinki comes in. Its new Baltika vessel will be able to cut much bigger holes in the ice: about 160 feet wide (50 meters), compared to the normal 100 feet. That should be wide enough for full tanker ships to cross: a vital development for Russia, which wants to send oil and gas to markets in Asia.

What’s novel about the Baltika is how it makes the hole. It moves sideways, at a 30 degree angle, pushing out a long, rounded section on the left hand side. Arctech is making the first asymmetric boat, and it says it should be finished in time for the shipping season starting next spring. The vessel, which is quite small, will be used only in the Gulf of Finland. But the designer is already working on a bigger ship, with the same shape, which will go longer distances.

“This vessel is not designed for northern routes. But the concept designer has already made a concept for a longer vessel that will be operated in these northern areas,” says project manager Mika Willberg, in an interview.

To keep the lop-sided ship stable, the Baltika uses pumps to shift fuel and water between tanks inside. Willberg says getting the system to work properly has been “challenging.” But tests, in both clear and ice-filled water, now show it working properly.

There’s also a “petroleum-recovery system” in the event of an oil spill, which can absorb oil and water from the ocean and separate it. That could be a useful feature, given the increasing volume of fuel cargo.

“The oil transportation amounts [in the Gulf of Finland] have been increasing very much in the last 10 years,” Willberg says. “But the oil recovery vessels have not increased in the same amount. So there is an urgent need for this equipment in case of accidents. At the moment, the situation is not so good for the Russians.”

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.