Fuel consumption and subsequent costs are an important area of concern in shipping operations which makes alternative routes an attractive opportunity for the industry to explore. Amid diminishing ice and growing international interest in the Arctic, the Northern Sea Route has emerged as a new strategic opportunity for maritime transport.
he Northern Sea Route is a shipping lane officially defined by Russian legislation between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean specifically running along the Russian Arctic coast from Murmansk on the Barents Sea, along Siberia, to the Bering Strait and Far East. The entire route lies in Arctic waters and within Russia’s exclusive economic zone. Parts are free of ice for only two months per year.
Did you know?
NSR is “crossing” five Arctic Seas: Barents Sea, Kara Sea, Laptev Sea, East Siberian Sea and Chukchi Sea.
Northern Sea Route or Northeast Passage?
The Northern Sea Route accounts for the biggest part of the Northeast Passage (NEP) which describes the overall shipping route along the Arctic coasts of Norway and Russia (Siberia). Accordingly, the Northwest Passage (NWP) refers to the western route through the islands of Canada.
A common confusion is that the “Northern Sea Route” is often used as a term instead of the “Northeast Passage”, although NSR does not include the Barents Sea and, therefore, does not reach the Atlantic Ocean. This terminology overlapping leads to a common confusion in both navigational and jurisdiction issues.
|Northeast Passage – Russia side||Northwest Passage – Canada side|
|Shipping route between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, along the Arctic coasts of Norway and northern Siberia, Russia.||Sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, along the northern coast of North America via waterways through Canadian Arctic Archipelago|
The logic behind NSR
Widely known as “the shortcut between Asia and Europe”, the Northern Sea Route offers an attractive alternative to Suez Canal, the world’s busiest route, for shipping transport to the fast-growing regions in the Far East. It is estimated that NSR provides a 40% smaller distance from Northern Europe to China and vice versa, when compared to the Suez Canal.
Global warming, leading to diminishing ice conditions, has a major role to play to this end. To remind, 2021 was the 7th warmest year on record for the Arctic, according to the US NOAA, while all 15 of the lowest minimum extents have occurred in the last 15 years and are considered the result of GHG emissions. Accelerating shrinking sea ice is enabling shipping and other commercial and industrial activities to push deeper into the Arctic, with voyages increasing annually. In 2013, 71 vessels sailed the route compared to 46 in 2012, 41 in 2011 and 4 in 2010.
Energy and time savings through NSR when compared to the normally used route via Suez Canal are estimated at 30-40%, while piracy risk is non-existent. However, environmental risks and increased operating costs are a major area of concern for the option of NSR. In this context, it has been suggested as an ideal solution for ships to jointly use the two routes; the Northern Sea Route in summer when it is almost ice-free, and the Suez Canal Route during the rest of the year.
The NSR is also a great part of Russia’s Arctic strategy, which is envisioning an active development of hydrocarbon riches, development of Arctic ports and other infrastructure.
From a geo-political standpoint, the NSR provides a new avenue for developing international relations with new and existing customers for Russian hydrocarbons, while also allowing Russia to compete with key rivals in a rapidly globalizing market,
…the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies explained.
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A timeline of NSR history
- 1878-79: The route was first conquered by Scandinavian explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, during the historic Vega expedition. Named after the sailing ship Vega, this was the first Arctic expedition to navigate through the Northeast Passage and the first voyage to circumnavigate Eurasia.
- 1878-1919: Only a total of 75 convoys succeed to transport agricultural cargo via the Kara Sea.
- 1912: Two Russian expeditions, the Brusilov and the Gerkules, disappeared in the Arctic route. A German Arctic Expedition at the same year ends up in 8 out of 15 crew fatalities.
- 1913: A successful expedition, organized by Jonas Lied, takes place through the Kara Sea to the Yenisei.
- 1917: After the Russian Revolution, the use of NSR becomes imperative for Soviet Union which becomes isolated from the West.
- 1932: A Soviet expedition on the icebreaker A. Sibiryakov, led by Professor Otto Yulievich Schmidt, was the first to sail all the way from Arkhangelsk to the Bering Strait in the same summer without wintering en route.
- 1941-1945: During the Soviet-German War, the Soviets transferred several destroyers from the Pacific Fleet to the Northern Fleet via the Arctic.
- 1965: USCG cutter Northwind, commanded by Captain Kingdrel N. Ayers, becomes the first western vessel to operate in the Kara Sea of the Soviet Union, during an oceanographic survey.
- 1990s: Dissolvement of Societ Union leads to commercial navigation in the Siberian Arctic to a decline.
- 2017: In August 2017, the first ship traverses the Northern Sea Route without the use of icebreakers.
- 2018: Danish shipping giant Maersk Line sends the new “ice-class” container ship Venta Maersk through the route to gather data on operational feasibility but does not see it as commercially attractive.