Maersk confirmed last week that is intends to sail the containership Venta Maersk through the Northeast Passage from the Far East to St. Petersburg. The route runs along the Russian Arctic through what the Russians call the Northern Sea Route. This will be the first container ship to traverse the passage, although COSCO has sent LNG tankers through the route a number of times over the last couple years. The story piqued my interest due to the potential commercial and technical viability of the route. My initial questions were about the potential time and cost savings by using this route instead of the Suez Canal. But it also interested me from an adventurer perspective. I decided to look into the current use of the route, as well as its history. I also looked into the use of the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic. I thought this would be an interesting, light topic for Logistics Viewpoints readers leading up to the Labor Day weekend.
The Northeast Passage
The Northeast Passage runs (East to West) from the Bering Sea, through the Bering Strait and along the Russian Artic coast until it enters the Norwegian Sea. Sailing along the route is generally limited to the summer months due to the thick sea ice that covers waters in the area. The first traverse of the route was done in the late 1800’s by Swedish explorer Baron Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld. However, the first one-season traverse was done by a Soviet icebreaker in 1934. In 2009, foreign merchant ships began traversing the passage.
The Northern Sea Route (NSR), a Russian designated area of the Northeast Passage, is also used frequently for the shipping of liquified natural gas (LNG) from the Yamal Penninsula in western Siberia. In 2016, China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) sent 5 vessels through the route. I checked the Russian Northern Sea Route Administration website for a list of applications for use of the NSR. In 2018, the list to sail within the area of the Northern Sea Route includes mostly ice breakers, LNG carriers, supply ships, and bulk and general cargo ships. It’s worth mentioning that a large percentage of the vessels hold an ice class rating indicating the ship’s suitability for the ice that is encountered on the journey (Venta Maersk has an arc 4 rating).
The Arctic Sea Ice
In September 2008, the U.S. National Ice Center stated that the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route were both open and indicated that this was the first recorded occurrence of both open at the same time. NASA’s Earth Observatory posted an image that showed the Artic sea ice concentration on September 8, 2008 and included an outline of the 1979-2000 median minimum extent of sea ice for comparison. It is clear from this image that the Summer Artic ice sheet was substantially smaller that year than the average of the prior 20 years. In March 2018, the U.S. National Ice Center stated that 2018’s maximum ice had been reached and that it was the second smallest maximum Arctic sea ice extent on record (behind 2017). This data reinforced the view that the Arctic ice is currently retreating. Further reductions could make navigating the NSR feasible for a larger portion of the year and for a wider range of vessels.
The Northwest Passage
The Northwest Passage is the other well-renowned Artic sea route connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific. It traverses the Artic through the Canadian islands known as the Arctic Archipelago. Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and crew are credited as the first to traverse the route entirely by boat, in 1906. However, the expedition was a multiple year journey. Fast forward to 2013, and the bulk carrier Nordic Orion carrying coal from British Columbia to Finland, became the first bulk carrier to traverse the Northwest Passage. Although Nordic Orion was the first bulk carrier to traverse the passage, a number of smaller vessels have traveled in the passage (although not necessarily full traverses). The Canadian Coast Guard stated that 47 vessels traveled in the passage in 2016, according to PRI.org.
The use of the Northeast and Northwest Passages as a viable route alternative to the Suez and Panama Canals, respectively, is currently limited to special cases. For example, transit in the Northeast Passage is necessary for ships that transport LNG from the Yamal terminal in Siberia. It may also be commercially viable to traverse the passage when conditions permit. However, commercial shipping traverses are otherwise limited to trials by suitable ice class ships.