The Northern Sea Route (NSR) refers to a multitude of passageways along the Russian Arctic connecting Europe and Asia. It is deemed a potential alternative to routes crossing the Suez or Panama canals, potentially reducing distances up to 45%. Shipping from Rotterdam to Tokyo via the Suez Canal, for instance, now takes about 30 days, while it is shortened to only 18 days via the NSR.
The NSR has been open to international shipping since 1991. However, a significant increase in cargo turnover was only recorded after 2012, when the ice melting accelerated in response to global warming, making the passage more accessible and safer. Thus, international shipping companies began to be interested in their commercial exploitation.
Despite the NSR reducing some distances significantly — meaning in principle faster and cheaper transportation — the volume of shipments remains low. Maersk and COSCO performed several test voyages, but thus far, they have not manifested an interest in regular usage. CMA CGM discarded the NSR altogether because of concerns on the environmental impact on the region.
However, volumes have been increasing significantly in the last years, from 19.7 million tons of cargo in 2018 to 31.5 million tons in 2019, and the trend is expected to continue. From January to April 2020, in fact, more than 10 million tons were transported through the NSR, 4.5% more than in the same period of 2019.
In 2019, 29 transit vessels used the NSR, completing 37 voyages. Most of the transits were performed by general cargo vessels, with COSCO having deployed the largest fleet (seven vessels). Overall, the vessels operated under the flags of Russia, China, Liberia, Netherlands, Hong Kong, Portugal, Panama, and the Bahamas. Cabotage was the main direction for the transits (16 out of 37 voyages).
The NSR remains a risky route, though, as it suffers from severe and unpredictable weather conditions that hinder scheduled operations. Moreover, the relatively short period of summer navigation does not allow for year-round traffic.
Forecasts of future NSR usage accounting for climate change entail two extreme scenarios. If the current climate pattern is part of a longer natural cycle, then the planet is most probably facing the peak of a warming phase, which is followed by a cooling period. In such a case, the summer navigation window could shrink to just 60 days. The opposite and more credited scenario, backed up by more than 90% of the scientific community, identifies a strong anthropogenic component in climate change and predicts global warming by several degrees Celsius by the end of the century. The lengthening of the summer navigation window, however, would be relatively limited, with only a week gained each decade. The current summer period lasts for about 140 days, thus a significant increase in the short term is not envisaged. Moreover, warmer conditions would not automatically ease the difficult navigation conditions on the NSR: quite the opposite, as basically all climate models accompany higher temperatures with severe and more extreme weather systems.
Depending on the ice class of the vessel, navigation period, and weather conditions, icebreaking assistance may be required either in individual sections or along the entire route. This essentially translates into two key constraints: low speed and dependence on the icebreaker fleet.
The maximum speed during summertime — from July to October, with optimal weather, and light ice conditions — can be 17 to 19 knots. In winter, with severe ice conditions, the speed can decrease to 6 knots, and sometimes to zero, creating a downtime.
The harsh climate of the Far North imposes restrictions on the permissible cargo for transportation. Air temperature during winter averages -30 degrees Celsius (-22 degrees Fahrenheit), while in summer it remains around 0 degrees Celsius. These temperatures may not be suitable for electronics, plastics, food, and chemical products. In principle, temperature-controlled containers could be used to keep the cargo at an appropriate temperature, but this would increase the cost of transportation significantly.
Difficulties and limitations arise not only with the transported goods but also with the operation of the fleet, as the unpredictable weather poses an increased risk for the fleet and crew. Rescue operations on the NSR are in fact, complicated by the low air and water temperature and by the floating ice. Moreover, year-round navigation on the NSR would be impossible without an expanded and modernized icebreaker fleet, as well as a functional support infrastructure, which must include an ice monitoring system, repair services, and risk management measures related to the use of nuclear-powered icebreakers.
As of 2019, 17 icebreakers were deployed on the NSR. The construction of 12 more vessels is planned by Russia from 2022 to 2026. The Russian Federation also invested 587 billion rubles ($8.34 billion) in modernizing the infrastructure and developing the route.
High expectations have arisen, in particular, around the Leader nuclear-powered icebreaker project, also known as “Project 10510 icebreaker”, which is currently under development. While construction is planned from 2021 to 2025, the first vessel is expected to be commissioned by 2027, with the completion of two more by 2033. Leader icebreakers are supposed to be deployed in the most challenging sections of the NSR, where they would be able to overcome more than 4 meters thick continuous ice and form a shipping channel up to 50 meters wide. Moreover, Leader icebreakers would be able to provide assistance to container ships with a capacity of up to 14 thousand TEU, against the current 4 thousand TEU of the existing icebreakers.
By 2035, the Russian government and the Northern Sea Route Directorate plan to develop the so-called Northern Sea Transit Corridor, which, in addition to the NSR ports, will include the ports of Murmansk, Arkhangelsk, Onega, and Kandalaksha in the west, and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky in the east.
“We need to ensure regularity and predictability of transportation. The cost of passing the NSR through state support should be slightly lower than the cost of the southern route, at least in the early years. It is important that transport companies and shippers believe that goods can be transported safely and on time via the NSR. We started working on a project to create a regular container line between Murmansk and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, to which goods from Europe and Asia will be delivered by feeder vessels, consolidated there on domestic container ships, and delivered under state guarantees” declared A. Krutikov, deputy head of the Ministry of Eastern Development.
Despite the NSR’s great potential in terms of cost and transit time reduction thanks to the shorter distances, the usage of the route is still limited because of the short summer season and lack of infrastructure. Despite the ice melting, the potential impact of global warming on the length of the summer season is small, and the assistance of icebreakers will still be needed. Nonetheless, Russia has shown interest in developing the route and is heavily investing in its infrastructure, to ensure year-round navigation, which could attract shippers and transportation companies towards a regular usage of the NSR.
Anna Sindjajeva is a logistics team leader for Allyn International Services.