With the melting of the ice caps being such a crucial issue in the fight against climate change, you might be wondering whether icebreaker ships have a role to play.
Icebreaker ships are bad for the environment because they use a lot of fuel and because crushing ice can potentially make it melt faster.
Here’s everything you need to know about the environmental impact of icebreaker ships.
1 What Are Icebreaker Ships Used For?
As the name suggests, icebreaker ships are big, sturdy ships that break down the ice.
The purpose of this is to allow cargo ships to safely pass through icy waters.
They are also vital during search and rescue missions and can clear ice for researchers to study the ice caps.
2. What’s the Environmental Impact of Icebreaker Ships?
Icebreaker ships must be made from a strong material to ensure they can break big sheets of ice without sustaining damage.
This is why they’re usually made from steel. They vary in size but usually weigh thousands of tonnes – which is a huge amount of steel.
Steel is non-renewable. Sourcing steel to build ships is unsustainable since it requires mining.
Mining is not only a big source of pollution but can also cause deforestation, which disrupts the ecosystem, as well as soil erosion and instability from constructing the mine site.
It then requires a lot of energy to convert the mined minerals into metal and then into products, such as icebreaker ships.
Given that most energy production is still based on fossil fuels, this is unsustainable and causes further pollution.
In 2021, the steel sector alone released more than 3.3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.
Steel is recyclable, and unlike plastic, metal can be recycled an unlimited amount of times without losing quality.
Most ships last between 30 to 50 years, so there is not a regular demand to replace rundown ships.
The steel from a ship is also usually recycled at the end of its lifespan.
While recycling is not carbon neutral, it does require less energy and resources than sourcing new materials.
Icebreaker ships can also disrupt the ecosystem.
Since they make a lot of noise, they can frighten animals away from the area and can also disturb marine life living under the ice.
As ships release CO2, this can have an impact on the ocean and marine life.
As the ocean absorbs more CO2, the pH changes, making it more acidic.
Ocean acidification is detrimental to marine life that relies on shells.
Shells and skeletons are formed from calcium and carbonate, but as the ocean becomes more acidic, these structures can break down.
Meaning these creatures must spend more time repairing their shells or are left exposed and without shelter.
For other marine life, the change in pH can mean they have to expend more energy to ensure their body fluid chemistry is stable, which can be detrimental to their health.
A more acidic ocean can also result in reduced development of larvae, further damaging populations.
3. Do Icebreaker Ships Contribute to Global Warming?
Yes, Icebreaker ships can contribute to global warming.
With the polar ice caps melting, there are fewer white surfaces to reflect the sun’s rays. Instead, sunlight hits the darker sea water, warming it up.
This warmer sea water in turn contributes to even faster melting of the remaining polar ice.
Add to that the constantly increasing greenhouse gas emissions and you have a self-reinforcing cycle that is very difficult to break.
As icebreaker ships pave their way through large ice sheets, the ice fractures into smaller pieces.
You might think this is negligible since it has not actually melted the ice.
However, crushed ice and smaller ice particles melt faster than larger pieces of ice.
This is because more of the surface area of the ice is exposed to the sun’s rays and the surrounding water than it would have been as one big sheet.
Icebreaker ships can also contribute to global warming by releasing emissions.
Ships usually run on polluting heavy fuel oil or marine diesel. Combusting one tonne of diesel can emit approximately 3.1 tonnes (3100 kg) of carbon dioxide into the environment.
Marine diesel also emits toxic substances such as sulfur.
This can react with other compounds in the air and create sulfuric acid, which is in acid rain.
An indirect implication is the role icebreakers play in shipping, as they clear the way for cargo ships.
Shipping accounts for approximately 3% of all greenhouse gas emissions globally.
4. How Much Fuel Does an Icebreaker Use?
The exact amount of fuel used may vary based on the size of the ship, ice thickness, journey, and age.
For example, an icebreaker in Russia tackling ice that is 3-meters thick (9’8 feet) could use more than 100 tonnes (100,000 kilograms) of fuel daily.
Which means the ship could emit more than 300 tons of CO2 per day.
5. Can Icebreaker Ships Be Made More Eco-Friendly?
There are several ways to make icebreaker ships more sustainable by changing their fuel source.
Nuclear power ships are regarded as more sustainable.
While nuclear energy is not considered renewable, it is recyclable and does not release emissions.
Liquified Natural Gas
Liquified natural gas is gas that has been converted to a liquid form.
Natural gas is still not the most sustainable option as it is still a fossil fuel.
However, compared to other fuel sources, it releases fewer carbon emissions.
It produces half as many emissions as coal.
So, while there is still an environmental impact, it is a step in the right direction.
There have been moves towards ships relying on renewable energy by developing wind-propelled ships, but it is not clear if this is feasible for icebreaker ships.
6. Are There Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Icebreaker Ships?
There do not seem to be any eco-friendly alternatives to icebreaker ships.
They must be made of strong, durable materials to break through the ice, so it is not feasible to make them from lighter materials like wood or plastic.
In 2017, a Russian tanker managed to cross the Arctic without an icebreaker ship to guide it.
This was due to the ship being designed with its own built-in icebreaker, but the journey was also possible due to the melting of Arctic ice, which is concerning.