History was made December 6 when a Russian tanker loaded with liquified natural gas crossed the Northern Sea Route, signaling the beginning of a new shipping lane through the North.

The new route offers plenty of advantages to large energy exporters as it saves time on transit as well as fuel and reduces the risk of piracy. With the increased traffic in the Arctic Sea come many risks to the delicate environment that has already been bearing the brunt of global warming.

With the warming of the planet and the subsequent thinning of the Arctic’s ice, the Northwest Passage is being increasingly viewed as a new route in the global energy market with the possibility of seeing a tanker passing through every three days in the near future if Russia’s Yamal project becomes a reality. Over the past two years, traffic in Canada’s Northwest Passage has increased from 18 to 22 ships a year, whereas historically the average was two per season.

The race to establish dominance among the five Arctic nations of Russia, the United States, Canada, Denmark and Norway began when a Russian expedition planted a flag at the North Pole in 2007.

The Ob River tanker left Hammerfest in northern Norway on November 7 destined for the Japanese port of Tobata. Escorted by three nuclear-powered icebreakers, the Ob River made the treacherous journey through the Northern Sea Route. The new route slashed 20 days off the regular route and cut fuel consumption by 40%.

The Ob River crew noted that most of their journey was ice-free and when they did encounter ice it was young ice, which is only 30 centimetres thick. During the voyage they made light of the fact that they saw polar bears as well as other northern wildlife. The tanker was working with the Krylovsky State Research Centre and the Russian shipping giant Sovcomflot in order to analyze the ice for ship traffic in the Arctic Sea.

This is not the first recorded transit of the Northwest Passage. Two German vessels made the voyage in 2009. But it is the first during the winter season, thereby opening up the route to year-round transit.

The news of the transit sent shockwaves through the environmental protection agencies, as there is still much research that needs to be done in regards to shipping disasters, such as an oil spill along the line of the Exxon Valdez. Environmental groups are worried by a lack of studies to examine ways to clean up oil spills in minus-40 degree temperatures.

A spokesperson from Gazprom, the commissioner of the voyage, said, “The trip has confirmed the technical and commercial viability of the Northern Sea Route for the global liquified natural gas business.” The successful journey of the Ob River will open up new potential for the expanding energy market in northern Europe and Asia.

The opening of the new route is also a sign of the shift from west to east of liquified natural gas exports. As the shale-gas discoveries in the U.S. have curbed the demand for imports in North America, Arctic nations are looking to expand in Asia where there is a rising demand for alternative fuel sources. After the Fukushima nuclear meltdown in Japan, natural gas is being increasingly seen as the most viable new energy source.

The world is changing and those who deny it need only look to the North to see the effects of a warming planet. The increased usage of the Northern Sea Route heralds a new age in shipping, bringing with it untold dangers that can have a disastrous effect on the fragile environment of the Far North.