The Northern Sea Route

The Northern Sea Route is a shipping lane connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean through the Northern Russian Arctic Coast Line. As a result of climate change the ice in the Arctic Sea has been melting considerably over recent years, resulting in the shipping lane being partly free of ice during the summer months. Ice free however means the absence of a frozen ice sheet, there will still be broken off ice sheets in various sizes in the Arctic Sea during the ice free periods. Therefore ships using the Northern Sea Route require ice strengthened hulls or in some case ice breaker support.

For ship owners and charterers there would be a huge economic benefit for using the Northern Sea Route. For example a container vessel sailing from Tokyo to Hamburg via the Southern route through the Suez Canal would cover 13.949 nautical miles, depending on the ship roughly 48 days of sailing. The same vessel on the Northern Sea Route would cover only 8.077 nautical miles or roughly requiring 35 days of sailing. It is obvious that the Northern Sea Route would be fuel and time efficient and this cost saving will be the main drive for commercial shipping via this shipping lane. However, currently the number of transits made by commercial ships and the cargo volume passing via the Northern Sea Route is still rather limited, but it is slowly increasing over the past years.

Navigation in the Arctic Sea is nothing new, especially during the Soviet era big nuclear powered ice-breakers ensured navigation to the major ports such as Murmansk and many others for the supplies of fuel and goods to remote Arctic settlements. What’s new is commercial shipping companies using the Northern Sea Route to go from the Far East to Western European ports. The first western shipping company that used the Northern Sea Route was the German shipping company Beluga in 2009. Two of their icestrengthened heavy lift vessels mv. ‘Beluga Fraternity’ and mv. ‘Beluga Foresight’ sailed from Ulsan in Korea to Rotterdam in Europe by using the Northern Sea Route. The voyage was shortened by 3.000 nautical miles compared to the normal voyage through the Suez Canal. This resulted in saving of 200 tons HFO380 bunkers per vessel, as the fuel consumption for a Beluga F-class vessel was in 2009 around 20,000 USD daily the entire saving was over 100,000 USD for bunker costs alone, not to mention all the other savings.

Most of the Northern Sea Route is along areas controlled by the Russian Federation. Several environmental activists have expressed their concerns regarding increased shipping activity in the Arctic’s due to its marine life and the lack of infrastructure to deal with oil pollution and shipping incidents. Another Arctic shipping route is the so-called Northwest Passage along the Northern coast of North America and the Canadian Archipelago connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific Ocean.

If I would have written this article 10 years ago, nobody would have believed that a Northern passage would be possible. Therefore we could ask ourselves the question “How will it be in the next 10 years?” Could it be that in 10 years time the Northern passage would be the preferred shipping route for ships transiting from the Far East to Europe? What would the effect be for the Suez Canal with it’s yearly over 18,000 transits, or for hub ports such as Singapore with yearly 120,000 vessels calling?

Time will tell us, but it is obvious that climate change is a fact.

Article written by Luc Verley MIIMS

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