The Venta Maersk will test the passage through Russian waters, which is significantly shorter than the way south through the Suez Canal. Climate change has warmed the Arctic waters, allowing ships to pass more easily.
As climate change reduces the amount of ice on the Northern Sea Route, the possibility for container ships to cut transport times from Asia to Europe is increasing. This year, sea ice reached its lowest levels in history as temperatures 30 degrees Celsius above average were recorded in the Arctic.
The Northern Sea Route runs from Murmansk near the Russian border with Norway to the Bering Strait near Alaska. Ships going that way have to pay for a Russian permit and ice-breaker escorts as well as higher insurance.
Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica sailed the North Pacific Ocean toward the Bering Sea in July last year to record environmental changes.
The distance saved by heading north, instead of south through the Suez Canal from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and onwards south of India, has tempted Maersk. The world's largest container shipping group could see its vessel complete the journey in 14 fewer days at sea.
"The trial passage will enable us to explore the operational feasibility of container shipping through the Northern Sea Route and to collect data," Maersk said in a statement. "This is a one-off trial designed to explore an unknown route for container shipping and to collect scientific data."
The Venta Maersk left Vladivostok on Russia's east coast on Thursday and is scheduled to depart Busan, South Korea, early next week. It will bring its cargo of Russian fish and South Korean electronics through the Bering Strait to the Russian port city of St Petersburg on the Baltic Sea by the end of September.
Russia is keen to develop transit through the Arctic in direct competition to the Suez Canal. Average costs for passage through the Egyptian state-owned Suez Canal are about $465,000 (€400,000) for a ship the size of the 42,000-tonne Venta Maersk with its 3,600 containers.
Maersk emphasized that the route was only a test. "Currently, we do not see the Northern Sea Route as an alternative to our usual routes," a spokeswoman for Maersk said. "Today, the passage is only feasible for around three months a year, which may change with time."
The new ice-class Venta Maersk was launched this year and is designed to sail in colder seas with a stronger hull and protected rudders.
Smaller vessels with gas and oil cargo already take the Northern Route regularly. They include Maersk's Chinese competitor COSCO and Russian natural gas producer Novatek, which brought the first liquefied natural gas cargo to China via the Northern Sea Route in July.
The increase in traffic has environmentalists concerned about the threat of pollution in the event of an accident.
Greenpeace Nordic said heavy fuel oil leaking into the marine environment was particularly dangerous as the cold temperatures can slow or halt the natural breakdown of oil.
jm/msh (Reuters, AP)