Arctic Navigation of 2013 was launched on July 23

12 December Sagar Sandesh
Russia retains unassailable monopoly in inaccessible sailing

If we go by the recent developments regarding the Arctic Navigation and more precisely the Northern Shipping Route, Russia has always showcased its dominance as an unassailable power for the region in every available forum, be it the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) or the United Nations (UN).

And, it becomes more evident in the recent weeks that Russia assuming the role wholeheartedly and also for securing its maritime interests globally.

Thundering the country’s role during the 28th session of the Assembly of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), Mr. Viсtor Olersky, Russia’s Transportation Deputy Minister, said: “Russia, which has a unique experience of shipping in the Arctic, has the right to establish special requirements for ships during their voyages in its jurisdictional waters in the Arctic, as stipulated in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.”

While welcoming the IMO efforts to establish universal rules of navigation in the Arctic waters, adopting the Polar Code, Mr. Olersky said that the country is ready to share its experience in the Arctic.

His statement at the highest forum like IMO denotes that Russia is slowly increasing its foothold in world maritime affairs (when it comes to Arctic Navigation) and commercial operations like movement of goods via Northern Shipping Route cannot simply happen without its “yes.”

“Particular attention should be paid to the issue of icebreaker assistance for the safety of navigation in the ice-covered waters. I believe the icebreaking support of navigation in polar waters should be adequately reflected in the future Polar Code,” said Mr. Olersky.

IT may be mentioned here that commercial shipping has increased in the Arctic, primarily on the Northern Shipping Route – previously the inaccessible areas.

“As a coastal State for the Northern Sea Route, Russia takes all the necessary measures to ensure the safe navigation of ships, including large vessels. In 2012, Russia passed a law on state regulation of commercial navigation in the waters of the Northern Sea Route. This year we introduced new Rules for sailing in the waters of the Northern Sea Route, and set up the Authority of the Northern Sea Route. We are carrying out a large scale programme of renovation of the icebreaker fleet, including nuclear-powered ships, at the expense of the federal budget,” he added.

Commercial activity

As per the estimates about the commercial activities in the region by the Russian Regional Development Ministry, the volume of the Northern Sea Route in 2020 will increase seven-fold. According to the Federal Agency for Maritime and River Transport of Russia (Rosmorrechflot), the volume of traffic on the Northern Sea Route in the navigation of 2012 (as of Nov. 7, 2012) amounted to 1 million 126 thousand 640 tons. In 2011, this number did not reach 1 million tons.

FESCO Transportation Group, one of Russia’s largest transportation and logistics holdings and a leader of the container transportation market in the Far East region, has completed its Arctic Navigation for the season wherein the company delivered cargoes within the frames of the Northern delivery and exports cargo from ports of Eastern Arctic.

The Arctic Navigation of 2013 was launched on July 23 and lasted 111 days – six days longer than in the previous year. The volume of delivered cargo, compared to that of last year, has increased by 41%, mainly due to development of mining and geological industry which led to increased volumes of imported mining and other equipment, exported gold concentrates.

198.2K tons of cargo were shipped during the Arctic Navigation, including 35.8K tons of solid fuel, 12.5K tons of fuel oil and 149.9K tons of other goods.

Icebreaker “Admiral Makarov” participated in navigation under control of FESCO providing for pilotage of 23 vessels that made a total of 37 voyages. Also involved in the navigation were company’s vessels of strengthened arctic class, namely “Vasily Burhanov”, “Vasily Golovnin” and “FESCO Posyet”, the new motor vessel of FESCO. Altogether vessels of the Group have transported 24K tons of cargo.

FESCO Transportation Group participates in Arctic Navigation on an annual basis starting from the second half of July and closing in late October.

Maersk view

While Russia is steadily increasing its hold on the route, touted to be safest and shortest between Europe and Asia (Far-East), shipping major Maersk feels that Arctic shipping routes will take at least 10 to 20 years to provide commercial opportunities.

According to Mr. Nils Andersen, Head of Denmark’s AP Møller-Maersk, this is not a short-term opportunity. We will see some single ships sailing through the Arctic, but the reality is, for commercial shipping such as container shipping, this is not something that will happen within the next 10 to 20 years,” he added.

It may be noted here that Maersk is carrying 15 per cent of seaborne freight of the globe, and the shipping major predominantly transports hundreds of thousands of containers through the Suez Canal each year.

The route can cut the journey time between some Asian and European ports by about a third. It gained further prominence this summer when the first Chinese commercial vessel used the route.

On the other hand, the first bulk carrier – the Nordic Orion, laden with coal – sailed through the Northwest Passage over the top of Canada in September.

Polar shipping

Global climate change is offering new opportunities for international transportation networks, notably with a trend of receding ice around the North Pole. If this trend continues parts of the Arctic could be used more reliably for navigation, at least during summer months and for longer periods of time.

The main trans-Arctic routes include:

The northern sea route along the Arctic Coast of Russia is the maritime route that is likely to be free of ice first and would reduce a maritime journey between East Asia and Western Europe from 21, 000 km using the Suez Canal to 12, 800 km, cutting transit time by 10-15 days.

The Northwest Passage crossing Canada’s Arctic Ocean could become usable on a regular basis by 2020, lessening maritime shipping distances substantially. The maritime journey between East Asia and Western Europe would take about 13, 600 km using the Northwest Passage, while taking 24, 000 km using the Panama Canal. In 2007 the Northwest Passage was open during the summer months for the first time in recorded history, but it remains to be seen how stable this opening is.

The Arctic Bridge linking the Russian port of Murmansk or the Norwegian port of Narvik to the Canadian port of Churchill could be used, mostly for the grain trade.

The Transpolar sea route would use the central part of the Arctic to link most directly the Strait of Bering and the Atlantic Ocean of Murmansk.

The usage

In 2009, two German ships, Beluga Fraternity and Beluga Foresight, completed with a Russian icebreaker escort the first commercial journey across the Northern Sea Route (or Northeast Passage) linking Busan to Rotterdam with several stopovers.

The consideration of Arctic routes for commercial navigation purposes remains a very speculative endeavor, mainly for three main reasons:

–First, it is uncertain to what extent the receding perennial ice cover is a confirmed trend or simply part of a long term climatic cycle. Even if the Arctic routes become regularly open during the summer, the medium terms underline that Arctic would still remain closed to commercial navigation during the winter months.

As of 2010, the ice free conditions of most Arctic shipping routes were only about 30 days. Since maritime shipping companies are looking for regular and consistent services, this seasonality has limited commercial appeal.

–Second, there is very limited economic activity around the Arctic Circle, implying that shipping services crossing the Arctic have almost no opportunity to drop and pick-up cargo as they pass through. Thus, unlike other long distance commercial shipping routes there is limited revenue generation potential for shipping lines along the Arctic route, which forbids the emergence of trans-shipment hubs. Shipping in the Arctic is suitable for point to point services linking directly a source port and a destination port. This value proposition could improve if resources (oil and mining) around the Arctic are extracted in greater quantities, which would favour bulk shipping.

–Thirdly, the Arctic remains a frontier in terms of weather forecast, charting and building a navigation system, implying uncertainties and unreliability for navigation. This implies that substantial efforts have to be made to insure that navigation can take place in a safe manner along well defined navigation routes. Ships also need to be certified to operate in Arctic conditions, which increases costs for operators.

In view of these three conditions, maritime shipping companies are not yet considering seriously the commercial potential of the Arctic as a navigation shortcut. Still, the rise in bunker fuel prices and slow steaming practices can be considered incentives for the development of niche services that could use the Arctic as a shortcut between major markets of the northern hemisphere. By doing so, shipping services would have the option to mitigate the distance advantage of the shorter Arctic routes with the option of slower speeds and their fuel consumption benefits.

Nuclear icebreakers

According to a report by The Arctic Institute, as larger cargo volumes and more international vessels move through Arctic waters, or the Northern Sea Route as the passage is generally called, Russia would continue to fund the construction of the most powerful nuclear icebreakers in the world, and ensure they dominate future navigation and convoys.

These vessels are very expensive to build and to operate, however. So costly that just a few days of extra time navigating the icepack could eliminate the cost advantage which the Northern Sea Route is currently advertising over the Suez Canal alternative.

Because of the lack of ports along the Arctic shores, and tight beam and draught limits for vessels to navigate the eastern Laptev and Sannikov narrows, ten new Russian navigational and emergency centres will be installed over the next decade to bring the new traffic under Russian supervision and regulation. But there are technical problems with the maintenance of hundreds of strontium-90 powered navigational beacons installed along the coast line.

Decrees issued by former President Dmitry Medvedev and President Vladimir Putin have ordered state funding for three new nuclear-powered icebreakers, built according to new designs by the Iceberg Bureau of St. Petersburg.

The first, already under way at Baltic Shipyard in St. Petersburg, will be ready by 2017; the second and third by 2020.

After the US and Germany tried, then abandoned their efforts to create comparable nuclear-powered icebreakers, Stanislaus Golovinsky says Russia now has an “absolute monopoly” on this segment of shipbuilding and operation; Golovinsky is Deputy Director General of Rosatomflot, the state agency in charge of the new icebreaker fleet.

Japan operates the nuclear-powered Mutsu icebreaker, but it is no more than a research vessel. China tested the route with the Xue Long, a diesel-powered icebreaker, a year ago.

The new Russian vessels will replace the five icebreakers currently available for the Northern Sea Route. Unlike diesel powered vessels, however, the nuclear ones aren’t limited in range or operation by the need to make port for refuelling.

German attack

Not since Operation Wunderland of 1942, a German Navy operation to attack and sink Russian convoys moving east and westward through the Northern Sea Route, has there been so much planned vessel movement through the Arctic seas. The perception of hostile or competitive foreign threats in the region spurred the Russian Government to enact new legislation in 2012, establishing the Northern Sea Route Administration, and following with new regulations and charges covering foreign vessel navigation, vessel to shore communication, weather and hydrological services, icebreaker operations, rescue and spill response.

The Northern Sea Route Administration opened for business in Moscow in March of this year. Its new rules require vessels applying for permits to transit the route to accept Russian icebreaker assistance, which is determined by whether ice conditions at voyage time are judged to be heavy, medium or light.

Russian maritime statistics indicate that in 2012, 46 vessels sailed through the Northern Sea Route. They carried about 2 million tonnes of cargo; this compares with 7 million tonnes in 1987, the peak volume during the Soviet period. There was almost nothing when Boris Yeltsin took over the Presidency in the 1990s. Slightly more than half of these vessels sailed eastwards compared to those moving in the opposite direction.

Petroleum product cargoes still dominate, compared to bulk iron-ore, fish or ballast. For the first time last year cargoes of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Norway were transported eastwards, while one Norwegian product tanker set the record at 66, 462 tonnes of jet fuel on the route eastwards from South Korea to Finland.

Whatever is said and done, it is clearly coming out of ice that Russia is slowly and steadily engaging itself as the sole authority of Arctic Navigation with a special eye on Northern Sea Route, which could provide an easy passage for several commercial shipping liners to ferry in and out their cargo from Far East to Europe and vice-versa.

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