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Arctic Container Shipping: The Risks of Heavy Fuel Oil

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Author(s): Dr. Bryan Comer, Senior Researcher, International Council on Clean Transportation

Arctic shipping is possible for longer periods of the year as climate change unveils new, previously inaccessible routes connecting Asia, Europe, and North America. Icefree navigation enables more, and larger, ships to transit the Arctic, including containerships. Globally, and in the Arctic, most containerships use heavy fuel oil (HFO), the world’s dirtiest transportation fuel. HFO poses serious environmental and
economic risks, especially in ecologically sensitive areas like the Arctic.

When spilled, HFO breaks down slowly, particularly in cold water. Unlike other fuels, which float on the surface when spilled, HFO emulsifies in sea water, making it nearly impossible to clean up, especially if it sticks to sea ice. Using HFO is risky not only because of its spill potential, but also because burning it produces harmful air and climate pollutants including black carbon (BC), a small dark particle that settles on Arctic snow and ice, absorbs sunlight, accelerates melting, and…

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