The Northern Sea Route and Its Prospects: Part 1.

As there are many contradictory questions connected with the Arctic and navigation across the Northern Sea Route, such as:

  • Why do gas carriers go along the Northern Sea Route with ice breakers, after all it is expensive, etc.,

I decided to dig into the subject more deeply, having turned to highly specialised, and therefore not really popular, sources. In fact, it is a compilation from a forum where people who are directly related to the topic exchange opinions. I hope the material will be useful. Personally, I learned a lot.

In general, we will talk about everything related to the Northern Sea Route, how icebreakers work, who is towing icebergs and why, why icebreakers are frozen in ice, what happens to Northern seaports, and much more.

About global warming

Concerning global warming [i.e., the planet is heating up, but it’s not necessarily caused by man – ed], it really exists. The period of navigation, the severity of winters, and ice changes in recent years – the ice started to break much earlier. Now gas carriers go along the Northern Sea Route, using polynya. It is a classic of the genre, there always were polynya, but in the last 3 years they have been forming earlier.

About innovations

Now, in connection with activisation of movement along the Northern Sea Route, the list of innovations is vast. Different clever men suggest to blow up ice with dynamite, to cut it with a laser, and to sprinkle it with coal dust. But there is still nothing essentially new.

Primarily, satellite images in a radar range with different spatial resolutions are used to control the ice situation. They are parsed out of the path of movement. Now they are trying to develop an automatic route of the ship in the ice, but this work is in its infancy. Scientists don’t have enough data yet, but they are working on it.

Also, information systems of such an integrated nature are being created, where at the same time there are both marine navigation and weather charts with ice, ship positions, and a bunch of other possibilities depending on the company. For example, Gazprom has such a system. It is no longer focused on choosing the path and analysing the situation, but on controlling the ship, loading and unloading cargo, and meeting the needs of the ship in automatic mode. But the system is constantly growing. It’s like a layer cake. There can be a lot of layers and they are all different.

Also I know that some institutes develop methods of forecasting ice drifts according to the same radar pictures. The peculiarity is that this is not just the direction of drift, but the result shows where a particular field of ice will actually be in a day, two, three. This is very useful, but the accuracy is still low.

About “towing icebergs”

This method is expensive, but effective. In 2017 the “Kapitan Dranitsyn” ice breaker, near Franz Josef Land, at the request of Rosneft, tested the possibility of towing an iceberg. The purpose of the order is to understand whether it is possible to change the trajectory of the iceberg in case it crawls onto a drilling rig at sea. It was succeeded in a day to move an iceberg of about a million tons 50 miles away. This is very decent. In fact, this is not towing in the usual sense. On the icebreaker from the stern the end is brought, this steel end is tied around the iceberg. They start working with the machine. This is not towing, but rather a correction of the trajectory. The experience was considered successful. According to its cost it’s a trade secret.

About ecology

The function of Northern Sea Route management is assigned to Rosatom. Ecology is within the competence of Rosprirodnadzor, the Ministry of Natural Resources, and the Ministry of Emergency Situations. As for the environmental catastrophe in Norilsk, then a comparative analysis can be applied. For example, the size of the Kara Sea is huge and a similar “scale of tragedy” will be almost imperceptible for it. One may not agree with this, but it is so, the sea will “digest” such a quantity of oil products. But all the same, it should not happen in the first place. Nevertheless, when the Exxon Valdez tanker crashed near Alaska, when there was a flood of 41,000 tons of oil in 1989, everything was initially very dirty, but by 2016 almost everything had recovered. And this is despite the fact that until 2010, the even before the accident of the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico, the accident with the Exxon Valdez tanker was considered the most destructive disaster for the environment.

In general, “Norther Sea Route workers” are always for the environment. Nuclear-powered vessels, for example, are environmentally friendly. There are no emissions. Also, Rosatom, together with the Ministry of Transport, is also working to convert everyone to liquefied natural gas in polar waters. Although there are many nuances.

About new gas carriers (LNG tankers)

14 ice-class gas carriers will be constructed not just in South Korea, but in both Russia and in Korea at the same time. I.e., in other words, to meet the requirements of the Ministry of Industry and Trade, large blocks will be assembled in Korea, then they will be towed to the “Zvezda” shipyard in the Far East, where they are welded, installed, and made ready. It is expected that such a scheme will apply to only the first 5 tankers, and then “Zvezda” construction will be achieved, and the personnel will accumulate experience and gas carriers will be under construction in Russia. This is according to the plan, but there are still a lot of problems in all this. Up to the point that the price almost doubles, so it is too early to talk about full import substitution in this issue. The Ministry of Industry and Trade, of course, followed a consistent course to ensure that vessels are built in Russia, but there is a catastrophic lack of capacities and personnel for this. There is need of time.

Nevertheless, according to the resolution N719 of the government of the Russian Federation from 17.07.2015, which contains criteria for equipment that is considered to have been manufactured in the Russian Federation, laying, assembly of the body, outfitting, and also trial and mooring runs together with delivery of the vessel have to take place on the territory of Russia. The situation is still contradictory, but it is necessary to start somewhere.

To be continued…


Aleksandr Dubrovsky

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