By John McGarrity and Henning Gloystein
LONDON (Reuters) - A large freighter completed a voyage through the hazardous Arctic Northwest Passage for the first time this week, showing the potential for cutting shipment times and costs as global warming opens new routes.
The 75,000 deadweight-ton Nordic Orion, built in 2011 by a Japanese shipyard, left the Canadian Pacific port of Vancouver in early September and is scheduled to arrive in the Finnish port of Pori on October 7, according to AIS shipping data.
The ship will deliver coking coal from Canadian miner Teck Resources to Ruukki Metals, a Finnish steel producer.
"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," said Sakari Kallo, senior vice president of metals production at Ruukki.
Nordic Bulk Carriers, the Danish operator of the ship, estimated that the route saved around $80,000 worth of fuel.
"The Northwest Passage is more than 1,000 nautical miles shorter than the traditional shipping route through the Panama Canal and will save time, fuel and reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but even more importantly increase the amount of cargo per transit 25 percent," it said.
The Arctic route also enabled the Nordic Orion to carry its full capacity, adding 15,000 tons of coal that it would not have transported via the Panama Canal, where the depth limits the size of ships and cargo, the marine operator added.
Maritime experts said the new route could result in much lower fuel costs in transporting bulky materials such as coal but also could expose vessels to delays if icebergs blocked their path.
"Shipping through the Northwest Passage is a high-risk, high-gain strategy," said Knut Espen Solberg, a former Arctic mariner and a specialist with Norwegian shipping services company DNV.
Until now, harsh Arctic conditions have limited shipping on the passage mostly to small cargo vessels and ice-breakers, which supply northern Canadian communities.
The 225 meter long Nordic Orion, a panamax-sized ship, has a strengthened hull to cope with floating ice.
Many scientists say the melting of Arctic ice is a consequence of warmer temperatures caused by greenhouse gases emitted by burning fossil fuels, particularly coal.
In another development on Friday, leading climate scientists said they were more certain than ever that mankind is the main culprit for global warming.
As the ice continues to melt, some experts have estimated that shipping via the Arctic could account for a quarter of the cargo traffic between Europe and Asia by 2030.
Last November, Russian gas export company Gazprom made the first ever delivery of liquefied natural gas through the Arctic north-east route, sailing from Norway east to Japan.
Many maritime analysts have said, however, that large volumes of commercial shipping via the Arctic are at least 10 years away.
(editing by Jane Baird)