Northern Sea Route

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Map of the Arctic region showing the Northern Sea Route, in the context of the Northeast Passage, and Northwest Passage[1]

The Northern Sea Route (Russian: Се́верный морско́й путь, Severnyy morskoy put, shortened to Севморпуть, Sevmorput) is a shipping lane officially defined by Russian legislation from the Kara Sea to the Pacific Ocean specifically running along the Russian Arctic coast from Kara Gates strait between the Barents Sea and the Kara Sea, along Siberia, to the Bering Strait. The entire route lies in Arctic waters and parts are free of ice for only two months per year. Before the beginning of the 20th century it was called the Northeast Passage, and is still sometimes referred to by that name.

While the Northeast Passage includes all the East Arctic seas and connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Northern Sea Route does not include the Barents Sea, and it therefore does not reach the Atlantic.[1][2]


The motivation to navigate the North East Passage was initially economic. In Russia, the idea of a possible seaway connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific was first put forward by the diplomat Gerasimov in 1525. However, Russian settlers and traders on the coast of the White Sea, the Pomors, had been exploring parts of the route as early as the 11th century.

During a voyage across the Barents Sea in search of the North East Passage in 1553, English explorer Hugh Willoughby thought he saw islands to the north, and islands called Willoughby's Land were shown on maps published by Plancius and Mercator in the 1590s and they continued to appear on maps by Jan Janssonius and Willem Blaeu into the 1640s.[3]

By the 17th century, traders had established a continuous sea route from Arkhangelsk to the Yamal Peninsula, where they portaged to the Gulf of Ob. This route, known as the Mangazeya seaway, after its eastern terminus, the trade depot of Mangazeya, was an early precursor to the Northern Sea Route.

East of the Yamal, the route north of the Taimyr Peninsula proved impossible or impractical. East of the Taimyr, from the 1630s, Russians began to sail the Arctic coast from the mouth of the Lena River to a point beyond the mouth of the Kolyma River. Both Vitus Bering (in 1728) and James Cook (in 1778) entered the Bering Strait from the south and sailed some distance northwest, but from 1648 (Semyon Dezhnev) to 1879 (Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld) no one is recorded as having sailed eastward between the Kolyma and Bering Strait.

The western parts of the passage were explored by northern European countries such as England, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway, looking for an alternative seaway to China and India. Although these expeditions failed, new coasts and islands were discovered. The most notable was the 1596 expedition led by Dutch navigator Willem Barentsz, who discovered Spitsbergen and Bear Island and rounded the north of Novaya Zemlya.

Fearing English and Dutch penetration into Siberia, Russia closed the Mangazeya seaway in 1619. Pomor activity in Northern Asia declined and the bulk of exploration in the 17th century was carried out by Siberian Cossacks, sailing from one river mouth to another in their Arctic-worthy kochs. In 1648, the most famous of these expeditions, led by Fedot Alekseev and Semyon Dezhnev, sailed east from the mouth of the Kolyma to the Pacific and rounded the Chukchi Peninsula, thus proving that no land connection between Asia and North America exists.

Eighty years after Dezhnev, in 1728, another Russian explorer, Danish-born Vitus Bering on Svyatoy Gavriil (Saint Gabriel) made a similar voyage in reverse, starting in Kamchatka and going north to the passage that now bears his name (Bering Strait).[4] It was Bering who gave their current names to Diomede Islands, vaguely mentioned by Dezhnev.

Bering's explorations of 1725–30 were part of a larger scheme initially devised by Peter the Great and known as the Great Northern Expedition.

The Second Kamchatka Expedition took place in 1735–42. This time there were two ships, Svyatoy Pyotr and Svyatoy Pavel, the latter commanded by Bering's deputy in the first expedition, Captain Aleksey Chirikov. During the Second Expedition Bering became the first Westerner to sight the coast of north-western North America, and Chirikov the first to land there. (A storm had separated the two ships earlier.) On his way back, Bering discovered the Aleutian Islands but fell ill, and Svyatoy Pyotr had to take shelter on an island off Kamchatka, where Bering died (Bering Island).

Independent of Bering and Chirikov, other Russian Imperial Navy parties took part in the Second Great Northern Expedition. One of these, led by Semyon Chelyuskin, in May 1742 reached Cape Chelyuskin, the northernmost point of both the North East Passage and the Eurasian continent.

Later expeditions to explore the North East Passage took place in the 1760s (Vasiliy Chichagov), 1785–95 (Joseph Billings and Gavril Sarychev), the 1820s and 1830s (Ferdinand Petrovich Wrangel, Pyotr Fyodorovich Anjou, Count Fyodor Litke and others). The possibility of navigation of the whole length of the passage was proved by the mid-19th century.

However, it was only in 1878 that Finnish-Swedish explorer Nordenskiöld made the first complete passage of the North East Passage from west to east, in the Vega expedition. The ship's captain on this expedition was Lieutenant Louis Palander of the Swedish Royal Navy.

One year before Nordenskiöld's voyage, commercial exploitation of a section of the route started with the so-called Kara expeditions, exporting Siberian agricultural produce via the Kara Sea. Of 122 convoys between 1877 and 1919 only 75 succeeded, transporting as little as 55 tons of cargo. From 1911 the Kolyma steamboats ran from Vladivostok to the Kolyma once a year.

In 1912, two Russian expeditions set out; Captain Georgy Brusilov and the Brusilov Expedition in the Santa Anna, and Captain Alexander Kuchin with Vladimir Rusanov in the Gerkules; each with a woman on board. Both expeditions were hastily arranged, and both disappeared. The German Arctic Expedition of 1912, led by Herbert Schröder-Stranz, ended disastrously with only 7 of 15 crew members surviving the preliminary expedition to Nordaustlandet.[5][6]

In 1915, a Russian expedition led by Boris Vilkitskiy made the passage from east to west with the icebreakers Taymyr and Vaygach.[7]

Nordenskiöld, Nansen, Amundsen, DeLong, Makarov and others also led expeditions; mainly for scientific and cartographic purposes.

After the Russian Revolution[edit]

The introduction of radio, steamboats, and icebreakers made running the Northern Sea Route viable. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Soviet Union was isolated from the western powers, which made it imperative to use this route. Besides being the shortest seaway between the western and far eastern USSR, it was the only one that lay completely inside Soviet internal waters and did not impinge on waters of nearby opposing countries.

In 1932, a Soviet expedition led by Professor Otto Yulievich Schmidt was the first to sail all the way from Arkhangelsk to the Bering Strait in the same summer without wintering en route. After a couple more trial runs, in 1933 and 1934, the Northern Sea Route was officially defined and open and commercial exploitation began in 1935. The next year, part of the Baltic Fleet made the passage to the Pacific where armed conflict with Japan was looming.

A special governing body Glavsevmorput (Chief Directorate of the Northern Sea Route) was set up in 1932, and Otto Schmidt became its first director. It supervised navigation and built Arctic ports.

During the early part of World War II, the Soviets allowed the German auxiliary cruiser Komet to use the Northern Sea Route in the summer of 1940 to evade the British Royal Navy and break out into the Pacific Ocean. Komet was escorted by Soviet icebreakers during her journey. After the start of the Soviet-German War, the Soviets transferred several destroyers from the Pacific Fleet to the Northern Fleet via the Arctic. The Soviets also used the Northern Sea Route to transfer materials from the Soviet Far East to European Russia, and the Germans launched Operation Wunderland to interdict this traffic.

In July 1965, USCGC Northwind (WAGB-282), under the command of Captain Kingdrel N. Ayers, USCG conducted an oceanographic survey between Greenland, Iceland, and Scotland and was the first western vessel to operate in the Kara Sea of the Soviet Union, for which she received the Coast Guard Unit Commendation with Operational Distinguishing Device. The real, (then) classified mission of Northwind was to attempt a transit of the "Northeast Passage". The effort was not successful due to diplomatic reasons and caused an international incident between the U.S.S.R. and U.S.A.[8]

A January 2013 Reuters News report on expanding Russian arctic natural gas shipments to Asia, stated that while shipping traffic on the NSR surged in 2012 to around 1 million tons of various kinds of cargoes, "it pales by comparison with the 1987 peak of 6.6 million tons." In addition, Reuters said that the Finnish crude oil tanker Uikku was the first non-Russian energy vessel to brave the NSR in 1997.[9]

After the disintegration of the Soviet Union[edit]

After the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, commercial navigation in the Siberian Arctic went into decline.[10] More or less regular shipping is found only from Murmansk to Dudinka in the west and between Vladivostok and Pevek in the east. Ports between Dudinka and Pevek see virtually no shipping. Logashkino and Nordvik were abandoned and are now ghost towns[citation needed].

Renewed interest[10] led to several demonstration voyages in 1997[11] including the passage of the Finnish product tanker Uikku.[12]

Ice-free ports[edit]

Arctic Ocean seaports.

Only one Russian seaport in the Barents Sea en route the officially defined Northern Sea Route which begins at the Kara Gates Strait is ice-free all year round, Murmansk on the Kola Peninsula. Other Arctic ports are generally usable from July to October, or, such as Dudinka, are served by nuclear-powered icebreakers. Beyond the Bering Strait, the end of the Northern Sea Route, and south along Russia's Pacific seaboard Petropavlovsk in Kamchatka, Vanino, Nakhodka, and Vladivostok are accessible all year round.[13]

Ice-free navigation[edit]

Nuclear icebreaker NS 50 Let Pobedy escorting the Beluga Fraternity and Beluga Foresight through the Northern Sea Route in the summer of 2009.

The term "ice free" generally refers to the absence of fast ice, i.e. continuously frozen surface ice sheet cover. Under common usage "ice free" does not mean that there is no Arctic sea ice. "Ice free" regions can contain broken ice cover of varying density, often still requiring appropriately strengthened hulls or ice breaker support for safe passage.[citation needed]

French sailor Eric Brossier made the first passage by sailboat in only one season in the summer of 2002.[14] He returned to Europe the following summer by the Northwest Passage.

The Northern Sea Route was opened by receding ice in 2005 but was closed by 2007. The amount of polar ice had receded to 2005 levels in August 2008. In late August 2008, it was reported that images from the NASA Aqua satellite had revealed that the last ice blockage of the Northern Sea Route in the Laptev Sea had melted. This would have been the first time since satellite records began that both the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route had been open simultaneously.[15] However, other scientists suggested that the satellite images may have been misread and that the sea route was not yet passable.[16]

In 2009, the Bremen-based Beluga Group claimed they were the first Western company to attempt to cross the Northern Sea Route for shipping without assistance from icebreakers, cutting 4000 nautical miles off the journey between Ulsan, Korea and Rotterdam.[15][17] The voyage was widely covered and sometimes incorrectly said to be the first time when non-Russian ships make the transit.[18][19][20][21] In 1997, a Finnish oil tanker, Uikku, sailed the length of the Northern Sea Route from Murmansk to the Bering Strait, becoming the first Western ship to complete the voyage.[16]

However, the new (2008) ice-strengthened heavy lift vessels Beluga Fraternity and Beluga Foresight commenced an East-to-West passage of the Northern Sea Route in August 2009 [16][22] as part of a small convoy escorted by the Russian nuclear icebreaker NS 50 Let Pobedy, westward through the Bering, Sannikov, and Vilkitskiy Straits. The two vessels embarked Russian ice pilots for the voyage to the western Siberian port of Novyy, in the Yamburg region in the delta of the Ob River. The ships arrived at Novyy on 7 September, discharged their cargo to barges and departed on 12 September, bound for the Kara Gates and Rotterdam. They were the first non-Russian commercial vessels to complete this journey, but not without Russian assistance.[23] The captain of the Beluga Foresight, Valeriy Durov, described the achievement as "...great news for our industry."[23] The president of Beluga Shipping claimed the voyage saved each vessel about 300,000 euros, compared to the normal Korea-to-Rotterdam route by way of the Suez Canal. The company did not disclose how much they paid for the escort service and the Russian pilots. An 18 September 2009 press release stated that the company is already planning for six vessels to make Arctic deliveries in 2010.[24] It is not clear that this plan was followed up on.

A graphical comparison between use of the North East Passage (blue) and an alternative route through the Suez Canal (red)

In 2009, the first two international commercial cargo vessels traveled north of Russia between Europe and Asia.[25] In 2011, 18 ships have made the now mostly ice-free transit.[26] In 2011, 34 ships made the transit up from a total of 6 ships in 2010.[27] In 2012, 46 commercial ships made the transit. Petroleum products constituted the largest cargo group.[28] In 2013 71 commercial ships made the transit.[29]

July 28, 2009 the sailing yacht RX II, 36 feet, with expedition leader Trond Aasvoll and crew Hans Fredrik Haukland and Finn Andreassen left Vardø in Norway on a quest to circumnavigate the North Pole. The northern sea route proved ice free and the three Norwegians sailed into the Bering Strait September 24. But Russian bureaucracy managed to do what the arctic waters didn't: to stop their effort to sail around in one season. The boat over-wintered in Nome, and finished the trip through the Northwest passage the next summer.[30]

In September 2010, two yachts completed circumnavigation of the Arctic: Børge Ousland's team aboard The Northern Passage, and Sergei Murzayev's team in the Peter I. These were the first recorded instances of the circumnavigation of the Arctic by sailing yachts in one season.[31]

The largest ship as of 2011 is the 117,000 tonne SCF Baltica loaded with condensate.[32]

In 2012, the 288-metre (945 ft) LNG carrier Ob River became the first ship of its kind to transit the Northern Sea Route. The vessel completed the westbound voyage in ballast in only six days and is expected to sail back in Asia in November with a full load of liquified natural gas.[33][34] The growth in traffic has been startling. 46 ships sailed the entire length from Europe to East Asia during 2012. By Friday July 19, 2013, the administrators of the Northern Sea Route had granted permission to 204 ships to sail during the season.[35] At this point Arctic sea ice had declined substantial especially on the Atlantic side of the Arctic. "On July 15 extent came within 540,000 square kilometers (208,000 square miles) of that seen in 2012 on the same date... (Compared to the 1981 to 2010 average, ice extent on July 15, 2013 was 1.06 million square kilometers (409,000 square miles) below average.)"[36] (Summer 2012 Arctic sea ice volume reached a record low.)

During early September 2013 the Russian battlecruiser Petr Velikiy led a flotilla of Russian navy ships through the Russian portion of the Northern Sea Route in preparation for establishing regular patrols. About 400 ships are expected to transit the Russian portion of the route during the 2013 season, up from about 40 during 2012.[37]

Commercial value[edit]

Gains from shipping on an ice-free Northern Sea Route would be reduced number of days at sea and more than a halving of the vessel's fuel usage. if shipping from northern European to northern Pacific ports. For the corporate players in bulk shipping of relative low value raw materials, cost savings for fuel may appear as a driver to explore the Northern Sea Route for commercial transits, and not necessarily reduced lead time. The Northern Sea Route allows economies of scale compared to coastal route alternatives, with vessel draught and beam limitation. Environmental demands faced by the maritime shipping industry may emerge as one of the drivers for developing the Northern Sea Route. Increased knowledge about environmental benefits and costs for both the Northern Sea Route and Suez routes will probably be important factors in this respect.[38][10]

In 2011, four ships sailed the entire length of the Northern Sea Route; from the Atlantic to Pacific oceans.[39] In 2012, 46 ships sailed the NSR.[39]

In August 2012, Russian media source reported that 85% of vessels transiting the Northern Sea Route in 2011 were carrying gas or oil, and 80 percent were high-capacity tankers.[40]

Environmental concerns[edit]

In September 2012, Inuit Circumpolar Conference Chair Jimmy Stotts was reported as saying there is concern that increased shipping could adversely affect indigenous hunting of marine mammals. Also concerning is the lack of infrastructure on the Western Alaska coast to deal with a spill or a wrecked vessel.[40]


In 2007, Finland issued a €10 Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld and Northeast Passage commemorative coin. This issue celebrates the 175th anniversary of Nordenskiöld's birth and his discovery of the northern sea route. The obverse features an abstract portrait of Nordenskiöld at the helm of his ship. The reverse is dominated by a pattern resembling the labyrinth formed by adjacent ice floes.

The coin is one of the Europa Coins 2007 series, which celebrates European achievements in history.

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Østreng, Willy; Eger, Karl Magnus; Fløistad, Brit; Jørgensen-Dahl, Arnfinn; Lothe, Lars; Mejlænder-Larsen, Morten; Wergeland, Tor (2013). Shipping in Arctic Waters: A Comparison of the Northeast, Northwest and Trans Polar Passages. Springer. doi:10.1007/978-3-642-16790-4. ISBN 978-3642167898. 


  1. ^ a b Brigham, L.; McCalla, R.; Cunningham, E.; Barr, W.; VanderZwaag, D.; Chircop, A.; Santos-Pedro, V.M.; MacDonald, R.; Harder, S.; Ellis, B.; Snyder, J.; Huntington, H.; Skjoldal, H.; Gold, M.; Williams, M.; Wojhan, T.; Williams, M.; Falkingham, J. (2009). Brigham, Lawson; Santos-Pedro, V.M.; Juurmaa, K., eds. Arctic marine shipping assessment (AMSA). Norway: Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME), Arctic Council. 
  2. ^ Østreng, Willy; Eger, Karl Magnus; Fløistad, Brit; Jørgensen-Dahl, Arnfinn; Lothe, Lars; Mejlænder-Larsen, Morten; Wergeland, Tor (2013). Shipping in Arctic Waters: A Comparison of the Northeast, Northwest and Trans Polar Passages. Springer. doi:10.1007/978-3-642-16790-4. ISBN 978-3642167898. 
  3. ^ Hacquebord, Louwrens (Sep 1995). "In Search of Het Behouden Huys: A Survey of the Remains of the House of Willem Barentsz on Novaya Zemlya". Arctic 48 (3): 250. doi:10.14430/arctic1246. Retrieved 2009-03-08. 
  4. ^ Vaughan, Richard (2007). The Arctic: A History. Stroud: A. Sutton. 
  5. ^ Mills, William J. (2003). Exploring Polar Frontiers. p. 578. ISBN 1-57607-422-6. 
  6. ^ Thadeusz, Frank (2008). "Harakiri im Polarmeer" (in German). Der Spiegel. 
  7. ^ Barr, William (1975). "A Tsarist Attempt at Opening the Northern Sea Route: The Arctic Oeean Hydrographie Expedition, 1910-1915". Polarforschung. Retrieved 2010-08-23. 
  8. ^ Petrow, Richard (1967) Across the Top of Russia, The Cruise of the USCGC Northwind into the Polar Seas North of Siberia. New York, David McKay Co. Inc. and Van Rees Press. Library of Congress Cataloge Number: 67-19909.
  9. ^ "Russia Arctic Natural Gas Shipping Route to Asia 10 Years Away". 2013-01-28. Retrieved 2014-04-10. 
  10. ^ a b c Buixadé Farré, Albert; Stephenson, Scott R.; Chen, Linling; Czub, Michael; Dai, Ying; Demchev, Denis; Efimov, Yaroslav; Graczyk, Piotr; Grythe, Henrik; Keil, Kathrin; Kivekäs, Niku; Kumar, Naresh; Liu, Nengye; Matelenok, Igor; Myksvoll, Mari; O'Leary, Derek; Olsen, Julia; Pavithran .A.P., Sachin; Petersen, Edward; Raspotnik, Andreas; Ryzhov, Ivan; Solski, Jan; Suo, Lingling; Troein, Caroline; Valeeva, Vilena; van Rijckevorsel, Jaap; Wighting, Jonathan (October 16, 2014). "Commercial Arctic shipping through the Northeast Passage: Routes, resources, governance, technology, and infrastructure". Polar Geography (Taylor & Francis). doi:10.1080/1088937X.2014.965769. 
  11. ^ Lawson W. Brigham: "The Northern Sea Route, 1997" in Polar Record (1998), 34 : 219-224 Cambridge University Press doi:10.1017/S0032247400025687
  12. ^ The M/T Uikku navigated the entire Northern Sea Route in 1997[dead link]
  13. ^ Revkin, Andrew (September 6, 2008). "Experts Confirm Open Water Circling Arctic". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-10-03. 
  14. ^ "Eric Brossier, le vagabond des pôles" (in French). July 2004. Retrieved 2009-09-21. 
  15. ^ a b "Space Radar Helps Shipping Dodge Arctic Icebergs". National Geographic. December 2, 2008. Retrieved 2009-10-03. 
  16. ^ a b c Andrew Revkin (2009-09-04). "Commercial Arctic Passage Nearing Goal". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-09-05. 
  17. ^ "German vessels ready for the Northern Sea Route". 2009-08-05. Retrieved 2009-09-21. 
  18. ^ Andrew Revkin (2009-07-28). "Era of Trans-Arctic Shipping Nigh". New York Times. Retrieved 2012-04-17. 
  19. ^ "Derretimiento de los hielos en el Artico abre codiciada ruta marítima" [Melting ice in the Arctic seaway opens coveted: Two German freighters that traveled from South Korea to Siberia, managed to cross the mythical Northeast Passage, along the Russian coast]. Latercera. 2009-09-15. Retrieved 2011-12-28.  mirror
  20. ^ "Første skip gjennom Nordøstpassasjen" [The first ship through the Northwest Passage]. NRK. 2009-09-12. Retrieved 2011-12-28.  mirror
  21. ^ "Gemilerin rotasını değiştiren gelişme" [Development that changes the course of the vessels]. Sütun. 2010-12-17. Retrieved 2011-12-28.  mirror
  22. ^ "German commercial ships make historic Arctic journey". Deutsche Welle. 2009-09-12. Retrieved 2009-09-21. 
  23. ^ a b Liss, Artyom (2009-09-19). "Arctic trail blazers make history". BBC. Retrieved 2009-09-21. 
  24. ^ [1][dead link]
  25. ^ Kramer, Andrew E.; Revkin, Andrew C. (2009-09-11). "Arctic Shortcut Beckons Shippers as Ice Thaws". The New York Times. 
  26. ^ Kramer, Andrew E. (2011-10-17). "Warming Revives Old Dream of Sea Route in Russian Arctic". The New York Times. 
  27. ^ Douglas, Paul. "Back To The 40s (near 50 Tuesday; feels like January by late week)". Retrieved 2014-04-10. 
  28. ^ "46 vessels through Northern Sea Route". Barentsobserver. 2012-11-23. 
  29. ^ "Final statistics figures for transit navigation on the NSR in 2013". Northern Sea Route Information Office. 22 November 2013. Retrieved 23 May 2014. 
  30. ^ "Arctic expedition round the North Pole, through both the Northeast Passage and the Northwest Passage with RX2"
  31. ^ Pettersen, Trude. "Around the North Pole in less than three months" Barents Observer, 24 September 2010. Retrieved: 7 August 2012.
  32. ^ Stensvold, Tore. "No que through the North East Passage", Teknisk Ukeblad 22 June 2011. Retrieved: 7 August 2012.
  33. ^ Preparing for LNG on Northern Sea Route. Barents Observer, 23 October 2012. Retrieved on 2012-11-02.
  34. ^ LNG Tanker Ob River Prepares for Northern Sea Route. World Maritime News, 31 October 2012. Retrieved on 2012-11-02.
  35. ^ Richard Milne (2013-07-22). "Arctic shipping set to grow as sea ice melts". BDlive. Retrieved 2014-04-10. 
  36. ^ "A change of pace | Arctic Sea Ice News and Analysis". 2013-07-17. Retrieved 2014-04-10. 
  37. ^ Andrew E. Kramer (September 14, 2013). "Russia Preparing Patrols of Arctic Shipping Lanes". The New York Times. Retrieved September 15, 2013. 
  38. ^ Schøyen, H., & Bråthen, S. (2011) The Northern Sea Route versus the Suez Canal: cases from bulk shipping. Journal of Transport Geography, 19(4), 977-983
  39. ^ a b Vidal, John (24 July 2013). "Rapid Arctic thawing could be economic timebomb, scientists say". The Garduian. Retrieved 5 August 2014. 
  40. ^ a b "Arctic oil rush: The new global petroleum race will shape Alaska’s future". 2012-09-20. Retrieved 2014-04-10. 

External links[edit]