Russia’s Northern Sea Route Administration has received 604 applications for transits this year. The bulk of sailings take place on the western part of the Northern Sea Route (NSR); last year, only 71 made the entire voyage (full statistics here; PDF). Reports regarding the start of the sailing season on the NSR this year are conflicted. On August 27, the Maritime Executive noted that the Russian sailing route’s northeastern passage, which remains frozen longer than the northwestern part, would open two weeks early early. But on September 9, Bloomberg published an article saying that the closing was delayed. They quoted Sergey Balmsov, head of the NSR Information Office, as saying, “Due to ice conditions, active transit navigation on NSR starts later this season.”
Satellite imagery shows low sea ice concentration and extent along NSR
What does the satellite record show? An image of sea ice anomaly from the University of Hamburg’s Integrated Climate Data Center shows that there has actually been a lower concentration of sea ice along the NSR than on average. The red areas denote where sea ice concentration is lower than normal, while blue areas represent higher than normal sea ice concentration. Their image is based on data from a variety of European sources listed on their website.
Similarly, the animated GIF at the top of this post showing comparison maps of Arctic sea ice extent between 2013 and 2014, which I generated using data from the United States’ National Snow and Ice Data Center, reveal that the extent around the Russian Arctic seems lower as well, particularly north of the Laptev Sea. The orange dots represent all of the ports of call for ships sailing to or from the NSR in 2013. (Sea ice extent for the entire Arctic is about the same as last year, as the chart in the middle of this NSIDC website shows.) On September 17, the Arctic sea ice extent reached its annual minimum, the sixth-lowest in the satellite record (just as Antarctica hit a record high sea ice extent when compared to the past 35 years).
As of this time last year (late September), 38 ships, most of them carrying various types of fuel, had made the voyage. Many of those transits took place in July and August. Yet it was not until August 20 of this year that the first tanker transited the NSR, according to World Maritime News. Additionally, the NSR Information Office has not published any data on transits that have taken place this shipping season, which are normally visible in the box on the top right of their website. That could mean that comparatively little fuel and cargo has transited the NSR at all this summer.
However, TradeWinds reports that Dynagas’ Arctic Aurora, an LNG tanker currently on a five-year lease to Norway’s Statoil (and interestingly, built by South Korean shipping company Hyundai Heavy Industries), has received permission to sail the NSR between September 13 and October 25. This nearly six-week period gives the vessel some flexibility, as ships transit the NSR within three weeks on average. It’s rumored that the tanker will deliver liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Hammerfest to an eastern destination, likely in Asia. Currently, Marine Traffic shows the vessel as somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Morroco.
Is there a need for speed?
Speed is often emphasized as a big selling point of the NSR. A story from ClassNK posted by gCaptain, a shipping newsletter, gives a more detailed breakdown of the time savings from various Asian destinations (Japan would save the most time when shipping to destinations in northern Europe, followed by South Korea and northern China). However, since the global financial crisis began in 2008, when world trade and container shipping volumes tanked dramatically, shipping companies have actually slowed down their transit times. The Economist notes that “slow steaming,” a practice in the industry to save fuel, has caused the average transit time from China to Europe to increase from 21 to 26 days. Seventeen out of the 20 biggest container lines are either just breaking even or losing money.
So when container shipping companies are lengthening travel times in order to save fuel and money, that means they’re unlikely to be enthusiastic about the shortcut provided by the NSR, especially when the escort and transit fees associated with the Arctic passage make the total bill 10% higher than more southerly routes . If anything, it will be fuel tankers like Arctic Aurora and not cargo ships that make waves in the NSR in the near future.
One idea was recently floated at the World Food Moscow exhibition, though: increasing the number of reefer ships (refrigerated container ships) that deliver seafood from Kamchatka, in the Russian Far East, to consumers in Moscow and St. Petersburg . The Trans-Siberian Railway normally brings this cargo, but due to a lack of rolling stock, companies are looking to the seas to transport their fishy products. The NSR: bringing smoked salmon to Muscovites’ tables.
 Wilhelmsen Ships Service (2012).
 Fish News (2014) (in Russian).