Northern Sea Route

From speculations to reality by 2035

Northern Sea Route NSR

Photo courtesy of MOL
MOL’s Vladimir Rusanov Arc7 LNG carrier on its way to Yamal LNG.

Alexandra Middleton
High North News

The Northern Sea Route received its share of bad publicity in 2019, when it became a target of big logistics companies and brands that publicly declared their intentions not to use it.

In the last days of December 2019, Russia in its turn published a comprehensive plan for infrastructure development of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) for the period 2020-2035. Russia plans to increase traffic along the NSR by 90 million tons by 2030.

While the role of the NSR in Russian internal shipping is immense, especially due to liquified natural gas (LNG) transport from Yamal LNG project, the viability of commercial use of the NSR for international transit shipping has long been questioned both by research and practitioner communities.

The plan covers 11 topics for development along the Northern Sea Route:

  1. Port infrastructure and terminals
  2. Search and Rescue (SAR)
  3. Navigational and hydrographic support
  4. Development of ice-breaking capabilities
  5. Stimulation of cargo traffic and international transit shipment increase
  6. Aviation and railway network development
  7. Safety and communications network development
  8. Electricity generating capacity to support infrastructure
  9. Training and skills development
  10. Domestic shipbuilding for Arctic shipping
  11. Ecological safety
Northern Sea Route NSR

Illustration from the article author
Location of Yamal LNG and Arctic LNG 2 and shipping route along the NSR.

Altogether, the plan consists of 84 measures, each of them having a responsible min­istry or other body assigned and strict deadlines.

Let’s look at how the plan promises to make the Northern Sea Route competitive.


Port development

The port of Pevek will be reconstructed by 2020, and the reconstruction of the seaport of Sabetta will be completed by 2021. After completion of the work, Sabetta port will be able to accept cargo throughout the year.


Minimizing danger at sea

Search and Rescue (SAR) covers a total of 19 individual measures. By the end of 2020, the full analysis of the legal framework related to human SAR response systems in case of oil spill will be completed. Construction of rescue coordination centers is expected to be co-financed by extracting companies in the Arctic.

According to the document, the Arctic extracting companies will be involved in preparing proposals for rescue coordinating center constructions in Pevek and Sabetta ports by 2020, and in Dixon and Tiksi by 2022. Furthermore, by the end of 2020, an evaluation of the need to create a state company responsible for the deepening of the seabed along the NSR will be available. Altogether, 11 new SAR vessels serving various purposes are expected to be constructed and in operation by 2024.

Along with increased emphasis on SAR, there is attention to navigational and hydrographic support, which includes modernizing three existing vessels and having 13 new navigational and hydrographic vessels built by 2022 to 2023. Icebreaking capabilities will be strengthened by introducing five new class icebreakers from 2022-2024 and three additional super powerful Lider class icebreakers scheduled to be ready by 2027, 2030, and 2032.


Boosting international shipping

To attract international shipping, a series of measures has been proposed. The ports of Murmansk and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky have the potential to become logistical hubs for servicing international transit cargo, and the viability of the proposal will be ready by 2020. The creation of a Russian containership operator using ice-class vessels can become an answer to the current uncertainty. Finally, an evaluation of possible state subsidies to support the international competitiveness of the NSR will be available by 2021. Creation of digital systems for logistics along the route further promises to boost competitiveness.

Plans to expand the Northern Sea Route network include linking it to existing and new railroad networks and construction of new airports.


Providing predicting and communication capabilities

Currently, the lack of reliable communications on the NSR is of high concern. The plan covers creating stable and continuous satellite communication for users of the NSR by launching four geostationary satellites by 2024. The launch of six space modules by 2024 will secure a high-speed automatic identification system (AIS) on the Northern Sea Route.

The density of meteorological stations is expected to increase to provide more precise weather forecasting, moreover, and by 2025 the hydrometeorological data would be available via GEO satellites. Safety is addressed by measures to improve the forecasting of ice conditions. Moreover, year-round shipping along the NSR would require the creation of a unifying single operational control center, which is expected to be launched by 2021.

Port infrastructure development will require electricity generating capacity, the evaluation plan will include LNG-based solutions. The need for more skilled people and their training, including medical staff, is considered in the plan. National shipbuilding-stimulation measures include, among others, construction of container ships for the NSR. As for ecological measures, the plan states that there will be mandatory application of the best available technologies aimed at pollution reduction in the seas.

So far, the budget of the Russian Federation for 2020-2022 has funds of RUB 2.9 billion ($45.4 million) allocated to support navigational and hydrographic works on the NSR. The whole budget for the full plan realization will only appear in the future. What is already clear is that the plan is ambitious and capital-intensive since it tries to address many problems linked to the Northern Sea Route.

Northern Sea Route NSR

Image: Alexandra Middleton
Location of Yamal LNG and Arctic LNG 2 and shipping route along the NSR.

Roadmap of possible solutions

The document is seen by many as a response to accumulated criticisms and uncertainties related to the NSR, especially in the areas of SAR, navigational safety, communications, ecology, and prediction of weather and ice conditions.

The economic aspect deserves special consideration. At this stage, the document proposes possible solutions especially targeted at international shipping. If you are not happy about the depth of the straits along the NSR, they will be made deeper. If your vessel is too big, no problem; Lider icebreaker will make an ice corridor of 164 feet width to fit even big vessels. If the price is of concern, no worries—the state will compensate for the price difference. If you don’t have an ice-class vessel, use a logistic hub in Murmansk or Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. In the future, you can even deal with a state container ship company for smooth logistics solutions along the Northern Sea Route.

The document appears to be a roadmap full of solutions yet to be realized. However, there is no denying the determination of the Russian state to invest in the NSR and make it a safe and attractive international shipping route in the future.


This article was first published in High North News on Jan. 7, 2020.



This article originally appeared in the March 6, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.