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The Northern Sea Route: Is It Really Ice-Free? – Analysis


Notwithstanding the recent record warming in the northern polar region and the Russian pronouncement that the Northern Sea Route (NSR) is now ice-free, several challenges have to be addressed before the commercial viability of the NSR can be realised.

By Joshua Ho

ON 5 AUGUST 2011, Russia announced a record warming in the northern polar region, as a result of which the Arctic was now ice-free. The Russians also asserted that navigation through the Northern Sea Route (NSR) was now a reality and ships that ply the route would realise cost savings due to the reduced distances from Northern Europe to Northeast Asia. But are the Russian claims credible? One should take a step back to examine thefeasibility of exploiting the Northern Sea Route (NSR).

A graphical comparison between the North East Passage (blue) and an alternative route through Suez Canal (red)
A graphical comparison between the North East Passage (blue) and an alternative route through Suez Canal (red)

Firstly, despite the Russian claim, estimates still vary as to when the Northern Sea Route would be ice-free in summer, thereby prolonging the sailing season from the current 20 – 30 days to about 120 days. The estimates range from as early as 2013 to as late as 2080 with most estimates falling between 2040 and 2060. Given that this is still some 30 to 50 years away, it will be a long time before we see return on investments in infrastructure and ships to exploit the NSR.

Navigational Challenges

Secondly, even during summer, the notion of ice-free does not mean that the ocean is free of ice; it is just that the ice has broken up enough for ships to transit. As various ice formations are still present, there is a requirement for ice-breaker escorts; vessels which are not ice-class would not be granted permission by the Russian Marine Operations Headquarters (MOHQ) to transit.

The variable weather conditions add to the uncertainty when navigating along the NSR and the lack of satellite support is a problem. For example, the Global Positioning System (GPS) used in the Arctic – GLONASS – is not compatible with all international ships; this reduces its attractiveness as an alternate route since ships rely on GPS for navigation.

Variability in Distances between Ports

Thirdly, not all ports will benefit equally from reduced sailing times. For example, whilst sailing through the NSR will shave about seven days off the sailing time to Yokohama, it will only trim two days to Shanghai, three days to Busan and sailing time will actually increase by one day to Hong Kong. Hence, the savings to be realised by using the NSR is highly sensitive to changes in the origin-destination pair used for comparison.

Besides this variability in distances, many liners have also to call on a number of ports in their transit on the current West-East route. For example, more than 50 percent of the total Far East-Europe trade has to pass through Singapore; because of the routing, many liners will not be able to realise the benefits of using the NSR. Interviews with Maersk Line officials have revealed that only goods that are directly shipped from point to point such as special project cargoes will benefit from the shorter distances via the NSR.

High Costs

Fourthly, there are direct and indirect costs of using the NSR. All vessels transiting the NSR will need the approval of the Administration of the NSR in Russia before they can proceed for the transit. The request will need to be submitted four months in advance, which is time consuming; in comparison the process of transiting the Suez Canal only requires a 48-hour prior notification. Upon preliminary approval, the ship and its equipment will still have to be inspected for ice worthiness by agents of Murmansk Shipping Company (MSC) or Far Eastern Shipping Company (FESCO). The ship owner will have to bear all the costs of delivering the ship to a port where the MSC or FESCO agent resides.

The Marine Operations Headquarters (MOHQ) also requires that ships engage ice-breaking services and compulsory pilotage which adds to the cost of the transit. In addition, the cost of hiring interpreters will need to be factored in as well since the primary language used by the pilots and onboard the ice-breakers is Russian. A study has shown that the use of the NSR by a liner service operating between Yokohama and Rotterdam is not profitable until there is a 50 percent reduction in ice-breaking fees. The profitability is also sensitive to the price of bunker fuel; the higher the price of bunker fuel, the less profitable is the use of the NSR.

Unfavourable Business Environment in Russia

Lastly there is the questionable business environment in Russia today and in the forseeable future. Interviewees from the maritime industry have stated that the business environment in Russia is still unfavourable despite its being one of the fastest growing emerging markets today. They pointed that the political instability in Russia makes doing business highly risky. Businesses need a certain level of stability before the place can be considered safe for foreign investment. Another reason for the unfavourable business environment is the level of corruption in Russia. The Corruption Perception Index 2010 ranks Russia 154 out of 178 countries, making it one of the most corrupt places. Other obstacles that businesses face are the language barrier and difficulties in navigating the market. The interviewees were also reserved about the outlook of the business environment in future and cited political history and culture as the main reasons that the status quo will remain.

Some Way to Go

Despite the Russian claim that the NSR has opened up for commercial navigation, there are some issues to consider before one jumps on board. These include the uncertainty in timing when the NSR will be mostly ice-free during the summer; the navigational challenges that need to be overcome; variability in distances between ports; the high costs incurred in ice-breaking fees in using the NSR; and the unfavourable business environment in Russia currently and for the foreseeable future.

These conditions would need to improve before the use of the NSR can be commercially viable.

Joshua Ho is an Adjunct Senior Fellow with the Maritime Security Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

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RSIS Commentaries are intended to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy relevant background and analysis of contemporary developments. The views of the author/s are their own and do not represent the official position of the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), NTU, which produces the Commentaries. For any republishing of RSIS articles, consent must be obtained from S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

One thought on “The Northern Sea Route: Is It Really Ice-Free? – Analysis

  • August 19, 2011 at 8:18 am

    Hi Joshua,

    Thanks interesting article where you are raising some good and valid points. Just some comments from my side:
    1. The NSR will not be a competitor to Suez on the main “autobahn” to/from ARA and the Far East. It is first and foremost (more than) interesting for the upcoming industries in the north. For the new oil and gas offshore activity and the new mines located in northern Norway,Finland,Sweden and off course Russia, the NSR will suddenly represent a freight advantage.
    2. Forget containers. Maersk is absolutely right, it is a different type of shipping. There might be some feeder service into northern Russia and Siberia, but that’s it.
    3. I think you have made a mistake in the fuel cost. High fuel cost should be advantageous for NSR giver lower consumption/shorter distance?
    4. Russian risk. To a certain extent yes, but as we did last year, we sailed from a non Russian port to a non Russian port without calling into Russia at all. As an exception to the rule Atomflot and the NSR Administration are very service minded and real time permissions are obtained much faster than 4 months. (1 week is realistic and inspection for permission can be done in any port, but correctly as you say, for the shipowners account)
    5. Enclose a copy of our latest update for your guidance.

    Below please find a short summary on the activity on the Northern Sea Route (NSR) so far in the 2011 season:

    Voyages performed.


    So far 3 Panamax oil tankers, loaded with gas-condensate, have successfully completed their transit from the Murmansk area to the Far East. The first vessel started the transit in early July and encountered ice resulting in some delay. According to the charterers, Novatek, this vessel made an average speed of 11 knots, similar to what we did last year with the Nordic Barents. Other sources report 15 days and an average speed of 7,6 knots. We are double checking in order to get the exact figures.

    The last vessel passing the Bering Strait on August 15th has hardly seen any ice at all and has transited with an average speed of 14 knots an only using 8 days.

    The first vessel has successfully fixed a return cargo with jet fuel from Korea to the Continent, also using the NSR.

    Dry bulk.

    On the dry cargo side two 20 000 bulkers have successfully transited from Murmansk to China, loaded with iron ore for account Eurochem.

    Multi purpose/reefers/containers

    Two refer vessels, 5 000 dwt have performed voyages from Nakhodka (Russia Far East) to Murmansk loaded with fish. At the present stage we are unaware of any project cargoes going into northern Russia via the NSR.

    Voyages to be performed.


    The next vessel will be a 162 000 dwt Suezmax vessel loaded with 120 000 ton of condensate. Tschudi Arctic Transit are performing ship to ship transfer from two Panamax vessels off Honningsvåg, Northern Norway, this week, before the Suezmax will proceed through the NSR with final destination Thailand. This will be the largest vessel ever to have transited the NSR.

    Two/three more Panamax oil tankers are expected to transit before season’s end. The cargo is expected to be gas-condensate.

    Dry cargo.

    On the dry cargo side a Panamax bulker will load iron ore in Murmansk in week 34 for account Eurochem.

    Tschudi, through Arctic Bulk SA, hope to arrange a Panamax voyage with iron ore from Kirkenes to China before the end of the season.

    Multi purpose/reefers/containers

    One more reefer vessel of about 7 000 dwt is expected to do another voyage from Nakhodka to Murmansk in the end of August.

    Norilsk Nickel is planning to do a voyage from Dudinka to China this season with one of their special arctic class 15 000 multi purpose bulkers. This vessel is also expected to carry cargo back from China to Dudinka.


    Based on last year and this year’s experience it looks as though the NSR will be more used by tankers that dry cargo vessels. The reasons are twofold; there are more vessels with appropriate ice class available within the tanker segment. There is ample supply of condensate cargo in north-western Russia and it looks like the price for this type of cargo is more attractive in the Far East than on the Continent. We foresee a possibility for similar trades in the future also for LNG and crude oil, depending on arbitrage possibilities between the two markets.

    The length of the season seem to be from mid June till end October.

    The maximum size of a vessel has been increased to Suezmax (from last year Panamax).

    The tariff system implemented by Rosatomflot seems to be working with an average price of usd 5 per ton and a 30% reduction for vessels passing in ballast. With the current market conditions for both dry cargo and tankers we hope the Russian authorities are able to adjust their tariffs in order to remain competitive with Suez.

    We have established a very good relationship with Rosatomflot and we can assist with necessary applications. Rosatomflot are very cooperative and forthcoming and permissions are normally granted in a quick and efficient manner.

    Finally; no pirate attacks have been reported J

    Please do not hesitate to contact us in case you have further queries.


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