As a "circulatory system" of world trade, shipping is critical for economic and ultimately for human development. From COVID-19-related shipping delays to the 2021 Suez Canal obstruction, recent events have highlighted the need for greater variability in both supply chains and global trade routes, including through the establishment of complementary logistics routes through Arctic shipping lanes.
Amongst the Arctic’s most important shipping routes are Canada’s Northwest Passage (NWP) and the Northeast Passage (which includes Russia’s Northern Sea Route (NSR)). There is also the Transpolar Sea Route (TSR), which is currently hypothetical and may appear as climate change progresses. The route would link the Bering Strait in the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean above the Russian city of Murmansk via the central part of the Arctic Ocean.
At this point in time, the NSR is seen as the most economically promising amongst those of the aforementioned routes that are already functioning. Its attractiveness is a result of ambitious development plans and investments (both underway and expected) set at the federal level in Russia. Russia’s fleet of nuclear icebreakers is showing itself to be an especially advantageous aspect of these plans, accelerating the route’s evolution into a full-fledged transport highway.
The Northern Sea Route is the shortest shipping sea route between Northern Europe and the countries of the Asia-Pacific region. The NSR begins at the border between the Barents Sea and the Kara Sea and ends in the Bering Strait; it is comprised of five main ports (Sabetta, Dudinka, Khatanga, Tiksi, and Pevek). Functionally in operation since the mid-1930s, it now accommodates only ice class vessels and was first traversed by a ship without the accompaniment of an icebreaker in 2017.
The NSR has already shown itself capable of accommodating significant volumes of cargo transport at about 35 million tonnes in 2021 – about 4.5 times more than in 2016, the year cargo volume exceeded USSR figures for the very first time (6.57 million tonnes were transported along the NSR in 1987).
The Northern Sea Route offers a number of important advantages. Firstly, at 12,800 kilometres, the distance from Northern Europe to China is approximately 40 percent shorter via the Northern Sea Route than it is across the Suez Canal (21,000 kilometres) and 10-15 days quicker; it is also 60 percent shorter in terms of distance than the journey through the Cape of Good Hope. The shipping lane carries no risks of piracy and also allows for income to be generated from return cargoes travelling from the Far East. Finally, as a source of employment and new technology, the shipping lane fosters the economic and infrastructural development of localities along the Arctic coastline and raises the standard of living of local populations. Beyond its commercial benefits, the Northern Sea Route is a lifeline for 2.5 million people living in remote Russian territories who depend on vital supplies received through the Northern Supply initiative.
Technological advances, especially the introduction of new, more powerful icebreakers, offer new access to remote or previously inaccessible regions, as well as shorter routes across the Arctic seas. The technical capabilities of icebreakers are expected to open up new opportunities for commercial shipping across the Arctic, including year-round navigation along the NSR (expected to be launched by 2030).
The Arctic is also increasingly becoming more accessible as a result of significant climatic changes. Melting sea ice is both lengthening the shipping and navigation seasons and facilitating use of the NSR by larger and more diverse vessels capable of travelling without icebreaker accompaniment. Shorter routes lower energy use and translate to considerable reductions in transport time and cost, fuel consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions. Maritime transport generates approximately 1 Gt of CO2 emissions annually – 30 percent more than all global air transport. Once fully operational, the NSR is projected to reduce emissions by 20-30 million tonnes annually thanks to shorter transport times. With regard to development, high commodity prices and a growing global demand for resources make the Arctic – a site of immense reserves of natural resources – particularly attractive for nations and industries alike. This attractiveness is only strengthened by the prospect of shorter shipping times and greater access.
Due to the severity of the Arctic climate – characterised by long and harsh winters and prolonged periods with thick ice coverings on the surface of water – the refurbishment and expansion of icebreaker fleet is of great importance for the success of the Northern Sea Route. Nuclear-powered icebreakers break through ice at up to 10 knots (19 km/h or 12 mph), travelling at a maximum speed of 21 knots (39 km/h or 24 mph) in ice-free water. During winter months, ice along the Northern Sea Route can become as thick as two metres. The Taymyr and Iona ice massifs present the most difficult navigation conditions, significantly reducing the navigation period in the easterly direction.
Many Arctic countries build icebreakers and operate them in the Arctic, but Russia is still the only country that has a fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers – a low-carbon and resilient model for the Arctic region. The country’s current fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers consists of six ships; four more icebreakers are expected to be built by 2030, which will only increase the route’s competitiveness and make it ever more attractive.
In 2019, Russia’s government approved a project for the development of the NSR through 2035, addressing everything from infrastructure to information services to emergency rescue operations. The first stage of the project is focused on increasing cargo turnover, developing coastal infrastructure and ports to process various categories of goods, and crafting state support mechanisms for the construction of icebreakers and rescue and auxiliary fleets, amongst other goals.
The second stage of the project, to be implemented by 2030, is focused on providing year-round navigation across the shipping lane and connecting Arctic routes. This stage will also see a significant update to the nuclear icebreaker fleet. The third stage, to be implemented by 2035, will see the Northern Sea Route become a critical and competitive international and national sea corridor for the transport of goods.
Photo: Strana Rosatom