Article / 01.06.2023

Arctic shipping routes open for the season

With summer approaching in the northern hemisphere, seasonal Arctic transit shipping routes will open soon. Aker Arctic has compared alternative itineraries and evaluated future options.
There are three main routes over the Arctic, with the Northern Sea Route being the most established, the Northwest Passage open for a short season and the Transpolar Route being a promising future option.

“First of all, it is essential to distinguish between transit shipping and destination shipping,” underlines Alexey Shtrek, development engineer at Aker Arctic Technology.

“Transit shipping utilises a certain route to transport cargo between non-Arctic ports. It is therefore shorter and saves time when compared to, for instance, passing the Suez Canal or Panama Canal. Destination shipping is cargo shipments of oil, liquefied natural gas (LNG), ore or coal from Arctic production sites to the market.”

Sharp decline on the most established route

The Northern Sea Route (NSR) following the Russian Arctic coast is the most known and established Arctic route, with high levels of destination shipments year-round, utilizing specially designed Arctic vessels and supporting icebreakers to safeguard transports.

It has the longest seasonal window for lower ice-class vessels. With Polar Code Category C vessels, the NSR can be used 2-3 months (August to October). With Category B vessels, the NSR can be utilised 4-5 months (end of July to beginning of December).

“However, Arctic transit shipping is sensitive to disturbances, and with the current political situation, a sharp drop was seen last year. A similar decline happened in 2014, when Russia changed the rules and regulations for the NSR transit,” Shtrek explains.

“Destination shipping, on the other hand, grew slightly in 2022. Oil and gas projects cannot easily be put on hold, which explains the continued destination shipping. The NSR is also a strategically important shipping route for Russia,” Shtrek adds.

While most international organisations have stopped reporting on shipping cargo on the NSR, Aker Arctic has continued to follow shipment volumes. In 2022, there were no transit shipments on the NSR.

Constraints on the alternative itinerary

The Northwest Passage (NWP), along the Canadian Arctic coastline and archipelago, is an alternative route to NSR transit traffic. However, it has more severe ice conditions with multi-year ice and narrow straits, restricting the time it can be utilised. The availability of icebreaker assistance is also limited.

There are strict environmental constraints and an approval process in place to use the route. Destination shipping is mostly seasonal, except for a couple of mining projects in the Canadian sub-Arctic.

“The transit distance on the NWP is almost equal to the NSR. Furthermore, it is an established route, which, for instance, Wagenborg uses regularly,” Shtrek says.

“The seasonal window, however, is very short. With Category C vessels, the route can only be used in September, for about a month. With a Category B vessel, the NWP can be sailed for approximately two months (August-October).”

A theoretical comparison of the duration to transit on the various routes according to season, with an 8000 TEU Arctic containership. Read more about our recent design in Arctic Passion News issue 21.

The future option requires icebreaking assistance

The Transpolar Route (TPR) is a high-latitude route envisaged straight across the Arctic Ocean. It covers the shortest distance and uses only international waters outside national jurisdictions.

Due to high seasonal variability of ice conditions throughout the entire Arctic basin, the TPR does not exist as one fixed shipping lane but could follow a number of optional navigational routes.

Yet, the area is currently the most unexplored, uncertain, least known, with severe ice conditions of multi-year drifting ice. The known data is also old and should be updated to provide more detailed conclusions.

“In the future, maybe in ten years, if climate conditions allow this route to become feasible, it will have potential. Utilising route optimisation with satellite imagery to find open water paths, could open the TPR for seasonal transit shipments,” Shtrek says.

“With icebreaker assistance and proper tactical navigation, a Category B vessel could already utilize high-latitude routes outside official NSR water areas during one to two months,” he adds. “The Aker Arctic designed polar expedition cruise ship Le Commandant Charcot, a Polar Class 2 (PC2) vessel, reached the North Pole in 2021, without any assistance.”

Advice on ice trends

Aker Arctic continues to follow the situation on different cargo shipping routes. We have also evaluated how our designs are feasible to use in changing situations and on new routes.

“We are available to advise our customers on ice trends, what level and kind of power is needed for particular routes. Don’t hesitate to contact us with any questions,” Shtrek reminds.

Text: Catarina Stewen

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