Russian icebreaker makes record-setting Arctic voyage

According to the Russian media outlet Port News, a Russian icebreaker has just completed the fastest transit of the Northern Sea Route. Along with setting the speed record, the icebreaker also completed the trip over a month after the shipping season usually ends in the Arctic. But it’s still a long ways off from becoming the next great trade route.

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Image courtesy of the University of Washington.
Image courtesy of the University of Washington.

The Northern Sea Route runs along Russia’s Arctic coast from the Barents Sea in the west to the Bering Strait in the east.

The Vaygach, a nuclear powered icebreaker, took just seven and a half days, or one hundred and eighty-five hours to be exact, to complete the trip. It left from the Siberian side of the Bering Strait on December 17, covering over 22-hundred nautical miles before reaching its destination in the White Sea on the 25th.

Statistics from the past few years *do show a handful of other transits taking less than eight days, so it’s not the speed that’s most impressive, but the time of year it took place. According to statistics from the Northern Sea Route Information Office, the last three shipping seasons wrapped up in mid-November. The Vaygach started its trip in mid December, completing the record-breaking journey on Christmas Day.

Walt Meier, a research scientist for NASA and co-author of NOAA’s 2015 Arctic Report Card on Sea Ice says the successful transit is a sign of changing ice conditions in the Arctic.

“You know, doing it this late in the year, is pretty unusual, and is an indication that the ice is pretty thin, you know they have confidence that they can get through without too much trouble,” Meier says.

That confidence was showcased at an international Arctic forum in St. Petersburg in early December, where Russia’s deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said the Northern Sea Route could soon be operational year round. But despite the record transit and the proclaimed potential of the route, Andreas Østhagen a senior fellow at the Arctic Institute’s, doesn’t think this is this start of an Arctic boom.

“When I read this story, though initially, I’m assuming that what they’re doing, and by they I mean the Russian authorities, is just highlighting the capabilities they have,” Østhagen says.

Those capabilities include the largest fleet of icebreakers in the world, with more than Norway, Canada, Demark, and the U.S. combined. While Russia’s unmatched fleet allows them to offer more escorts and assistance along their Arctic coastline, it hasn’t exactly attracted to more international traffic.

The number of vessels that traveled the full length of the route dropped from more than seventy in 2013 to less than twenty in 2015. The amount cargo transported dropped even more dramatically by about 97 percent in just two years.

So what can explain all this? Østhagen says, among other factors, the recent plunge in oil prices means the shorter route is just less attractive to international traffic.

“And then you have the incidents in Ukraine in 2014 naturally hampering the operational environment, maybe not directly, but at least indirectly. The business climate for Russian collaboration in the Northern Sea Route was damaged to some extent,” Østhagen says.

Despite persisting political tensions, there is one type of traffic that has been on the rise: Destinational traffic, or intra-transits as Østhagen describes them.

“When you look at the numbers for this year, I think it’s quite obvious that what is taking place in the northern sea route is intra-transits, so transits with a destination in the Northern Sea Route itself,” Østhagen says.

Russia granted over 700 permits for vessels traveling along the route, a number that has steadily risen over the past few years. The amount of cargo is also up, nearly doubling between 2013 and 2015.

So what’s next for the Northern Sea Route? While it’s hard to predict how the political climate may shift, NASA’s Meier says the changing climate in the Arctic is leading to thinner ice.

“And as the ice is thinner, it’s more easily blown by the winds as well, so it can more easily move away from the coast,” Meier says.

With any luck the right winds, the Northern Sea Route will be back open for business in June of next year.