As the world’s oceans have broken surface temperature levels consistently during the past several months, more and more eyes have looked up to the north towards the growing shipping opportunities provided by the Northern Sea Route (NSR) which now has one of the longest shipping seasons on record.
According to the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, the average global ocean surface temperature on July 31 was exactly 20.9648 degrees Celsius, narrowly beating the previous record set in 2016.

The trend of increasing temperatures is consistently pointing upwards, which will bring rough seas for shipping to contend with but also provide an opportunity for the increasing use of the NSR. But rising temperatures and a longer shipping season along the route are not the only reasons why it has come into focus recently.

Russia uses the Black Sea and the port of Novorossiysk to ship out 60m barrels of crude oil to global markets monthly. But ever since Moscow backed out of the United Nations-backed deal to allow Ukrainian grain exports across the Black Sea, the security situation around the Black Sea has became more problematic for merchant shipping with several attacks on ports and vessels.

To mitigate this, Russia has been looking at the NSR as an alternative to export its oil and gas. Another factor why Russia wants to further develop the NSR as a viable route is the EU ban on imports of Russian crude in December last year. As a result, Moscow had to find customers willing to take its oil despite the ban and the biggest customer to do so was China.

Russian media claimed that China imported 10.5m tons of crude oil from Russia in June, an increase of 44% over last year and a record, which shows that further development of the NSR is closely bound to the hydrocarbon exports from Russia to China.

The standard Suez Canal route between Europe and Asia is 21,000 km long while the NSR is 13,000 km long and can potentially reduce shipping time by more than half. With no risk of conflict like in the Black Sea, a shorter travel time than via the Suez, and no fear of pirate activity like at Bab el-Mandeb, it is clear why Russia wants to make the NSR happen.
Not every voyage is smooth, however. Reports surfaced last month stating that two aframax tankers were not able to shorten the trip from Russia to China compared to the standard Suez Canal route due to ice-related delays.

This June, Russian prime minister Mikhail Mishustin declared that some $21bn would be invested in the development of the NSR over the next 13 years. The investment would consist of constructing 50 icebreakers and ice-class ships, building ports, and creating an orbital satellite constellation.

Apart from looking to the future, Russia is growing transport on the route year by year. According to the country’s Minister for the Development of the Russian Far East and Arctic Aleksey Chekunkov, freight traffic along the NSR increased from 4m tonnes in 2014 to 34m tonnes in 2022. Russia aims to increase the capacity of the NSR to 100m tonnes by 2026 and 200m tonnes by 2030.

The route goes through the Arctic Ocean which has a thick icy layer for most of the year. But here is where the rising temperatures come into play as the ice cover has been shrinking in recent years and has given Arctic countries like Russia the opportunity to explore what can be done with the NSR. According to Weathernews, the northern passage became navigable without entering the ice zone on August 2, 2021, and remained open for 88 days which was the longest-ever recorded at the time. That window will only be larger and larger as temperatures rise.

And the increase in the use of the NSR by Russia has been evident this year. According to Dylan Simpson, freight analyst at Vortexa, there has been an increase in Russian crude volumes going via the NSR.
“The last time we registered any flows of Russian crude via the NSR was from August to October of 2019. This year we have seen almost triple the 2019 flows via the NSR, starting in July this time. Initially, we saw two tankers on this route, but there have been an additional four tankers involved since the initial observation,” Simpson told Splash.

He added that flows were also continuing in September due to higher sea temperatures and relatively low ice concentration and that the time window for doing so is also increasing for those same reasons. Simpson also said that one of the factors for the rise in traffic on the NSR lies in avoiding the costs of the Suez Canal.

He warned that there are risks of damaging tankers along the route due to its icy nature and that Russia seems to be prioritising building new nuclear-powered icebreakers. “However, their operational costs are high and could outweigh Suez Canal costs as the fleet grows,” Simpson added.

Last week was another milestone moment for the opening up of the NSR. Bulk carrier Gingo became the first capesize ship to sail the route. It took the bulker 13 days from Murmansk to China to carry 164,600 tonnes of iron ore concentrate – the largest cargo to cross the NSR. In another first, a conventional, non-ice-strengthened aframax tanker is currently conducting a transit from Murmansk to Ningbo in China.
Reports also claimed that LNG from the Gazprom LNG Portovaya plant in the Leningrad region was being supplied to China for the first time along the route.

Apart from these three events, last week saw another development which could give the NSR even more importance. India and Russia last Wednesday discussed the possibility of exploring new transport corridors like the NSR and the Eastern Maritime Corridor between Vladivostok and Chennai, India. Part of the discussion was the training of Indian seafarers for work on Polar and Arctic waters at the Russian Maritime Training Institute in Vladivostok.

Minister Chekunkov said the potential cargo base for the alternate routes will be coking coal, oil, LNG, and fertilizers which are present in sufficient quantities in the Far East.

Interested parties within Russia, like Kamchatka Territory Governor Vladimir Solodov, are also pushing for the increased use of the route. He told Vladimir Putin during a meeting of government members that vessels of over 1,000 containers should be used on the NSR to increase the volume of fish delivery and improve the regularity of shipments. That would improve Kamchatka’s position since the total share of the region’s products shipped via the NSR is only 1%.

All these recent developments on the NSR and Russia’s cooperation with China and India regarding the transport of goods along the route can have a major economic upside but come with the potential for extreme ecological damage.

There are massive implications for the Arctic due to the planet not being aligned with the 1.5 Celsius trajectory set within the Paris Agreement. Loss of both summer and winter sea ice, the collapse of the Greenland ice sheet, and the continued use of any fossil fuels by shipping on the NSR can be very detrimental to the Arctic.

“The rapid expansion of Arctic shipping traffic using fossil fuels and opening Arctic Sea routes to year-round navigation for transporting fossil fuels heightens the risk of spills and leakages, increases underwater noise pollution, and destroys ice ecosystems and habitats of ice-dependent species such as seals and polar bears. It also poses a significant threat to the food security and livelihoods of Indigenous communities whose survival and sustenance rely on their intricate relationship with a healthy Arctic environment,” Sian Prior, lead advisor to the Clean Arctic Alliance, told Splash.

Over 100 countries have signed the Global Methane Pledge to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030, while all Arctic countries have committed to reducing black carbon emissions by between 25-33% below 2013 levels by 2025. According to Prior, promoting the continued use of any fossil fuels will impede the transition to a zero-emission economy.

She added that the shipping sector had seen a global increase of 150% in methane emissions between 2012-2018 due to the use of LNG, while emissions of black carbon from ships in the Arctic have doubled between 2015 and 2021.

“Methane emissions from all sources are responsible for 25% of global warming, while black carbon emissions make up around one-fifth of shipping’s climate emissions and have a disproportionate impact when emitted in and near to Arctic snow and ice,” Prior explained.

Regardless of the dangers to the environment, it is highly likely that Russia, China, and even India will be looking to increase the frequency of ships delivering goods via the NSR. It remains to be seen if the weather will continue to be inclined to speed this process along or not and to see will the Russians be willing to go all in on their alternative to the Suez.