22 November 2011, 11:47

Northern Sea Route

Northern Sea Route

The current exploration of the Arctic region and plans to develop energy sources in the Arctic are all signs of what is proving to be a breakthrough in modern mineral production and the beginning of a new era in world energy production.

The current exploration of the Arctic region and plans to develop energy sources in the Arctic are all signs of what is proving to be a breakthrough in modern mineral production and the beginning of a new era in world energy production.

The development of the Northern Sea Route, the shortest overseas passage connecting Europe and the Far East is one of Russia’s current top priorities in the far north. The route passes through the Arctic seas including the : the Barents Sea, the Kara Sea, the Laptev Sea, the East Siberian Sea, the Chukchee Sea, and partially through the Bering Sea. It will serve the needs of Russia’s Arctic ports and water transportation using Siberia’s major rivers and can be used to maintain a flow of trade and commerce with the countries of Asia and the Pacific.

The alternatives to the Northern Sea Route are transport arteries half a world away that pass through the Suez and Panama Canals. The difference in mileage between the routes is huge. Vessels travelling from Murmansk to Yokohama via the Suez canal must travel 12,840 sea miles, while ships sailing from Murmansk to Yokohama along the Northern Sea Route have only 5,770 sea miles to cover.

However, the harsh climate of the Arctic has to be taken into account as well says Vladimir Sokolov, the head of an Arctic expedition organized by the  Arctic and Antarctica Research Institute. He told the voice of Russia that the problem is there is drifting ice along the Northern Sea Route, so ice-free navigation is possible only in those months of the year when the Northern Passage is clear of ice. This ice-free navigation period, when all passages are open, lasts 1-1.5 months. At other times, ships can only pass with the help of icebreakers which are supplied by the Russian Nuclear Fleet based in Murmansk. The fleet has all capacities needed to ensure safe shipping via the Northern Sea Route.

Nuclear powered ice-breakers

Nine of the world’s ten nuclear icebreakers belong to the Russian Federation and Russia is the only country that can provide merchant and military ship convoys with icebreaker escort.

It is possible that diesel powered icebreakers could cut their way through the Northern Sea Route but they are economically inefficient to run compared to nuclear powered ones.

The development of the Northern Sea Route came to the fore with the implementation of the Yamal Liquefied Natural Gas Project which stipulates transportation of liquefied natural gas from the port of Sabetta in the Yamal Peninsula to the Asian markets in tankers via the Northern Sea Route.

The Yamal LNG Project garnered massive support from the government which has undertaken the task of developing the Northern Sea Route’s transport infrastructure and the building of more nuclear powered icebreakers.

In June 2011 during a visit to Yekaterinburg, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said that Russia would roll out at least three next-generation nuclear icebreakers between 2012 and 2020.

Not only are nuclear-powered ice-breakers in demand but so are the diesel type. United Shipbuilding Corporation plans to roll out three more diesel icebreakers in the near future. The diesel icebreakers which are capable of operating in shallower waters are useful for the Yamal LNG Project because of the shallow waters of the Gulf of Ob. These icebreakers will lead LNG tankers from Sabetta to the deep seas of the Northern Sea Route where  Arktika-class icebreakers will take over.

Rosatom head, Sergei Kiriyenko recently said that the Iceberg Design Bureau is working on a multi-purpose icebreaker and that preliminary tests have proved the efficiency of a new model they are working on.

The Iceberg Class icebreaker is designed to aid shipping in both shallow and deep waters, where the ice is thicker. The funds for the construction of the new icebreaker will come from the privatization of Sovkomflot, which currently supplies vessels for those needing tankers and cargo ships that will travel along the Northern Sea Route.

At the end of 2010, Rosatomflot, Sovkomflot and NOVATEC successfully led the Baltika, a heavy tanker loaded with gas condensate, through the Northern Sea Route.

Another first in the history of the Northern Sea Route was when the NS Rossiya, the NS 50 Let Pobedy and the NS Taimyr took turns leading a 60,000-ton tanker from Murmansk to Pevek.

As experiments continued in 2011, another three tankers with gas condensate passed through the Northern Sea Route with the aid of nuclear icebreakers.

Also in 2010 a tanker set a record covering the Northern Sea Route in seven and a half days when the Northern Sea Route was covered by The Vladimir Tikhonov, the biggest tanker ever to be led through this route, with over 160,000 tons of deadweight on board.  

Passage via the Northern Sea Routes takes 14 days, on average. In contrast, the journey from Murmansk to Yokohama via the Suez Canal spans nearly 13,000 sea miles and takes about 40 days.

The Northern Sea Route stretches for less than 6,000 sea miles and covering its total distance takes 20 days on average. Experts say it may take even less time when the route is well-developed and in constant use.

In addition, the Northern Sea Route is safer in terms of pirate attacks. According to the International Maritime Bureau, the number of pirate attacks in the world went up 36% in the first six months of the year against the same period last year, and the number of attempts to seize vessels off Somalia hit record highs.  

A total of 71,000 tons of gas condensate were transported via the Northern Sea Route in 2010. Expeditions mapped ice-covered areas, examined the relief of the seabed using cutting-edge navigation and radar equipment and conducted satellite monitoring of the Arctic seas.

    Though the Northern Sea Route offers undisputable advantages, it doesn’t offer easy travel given the severe conditions of the Arctic. Therefore on the new agenda set before Russia’s ship builders is the substantial expansion of the Russian icebreaker fleet and the launching next-generation vessels. 

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