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In August 2017 the Christophe de Margerie, an icebreaking liquefied natural gas (LNG) carrier from Russia, made headlines for its record-setting voyage along the Northern Sea Route. The journey of more than 2,000 nautical miles along the NSR was completed by the LNG carrier in just over six and a half days.

The entire journey, which ran from Norway’s Hammerfest port to South Korea’s Boryeong port, was completed in 19 days. This is almost 30% faster than the traditional route between these two ports along the Suez Canal.

Victor Olerskiy, Russian Minister of Transport, spoke about the complexities of Arctic shipping at the 2015 Arctic Circle Assembly. The accomplishment of the Christophe de Margerie has fuelled optimism about the Arctic’s potential to open up viable alternative maritime routes, particularly for Russia and China.

In the short video attachment, you can learn more about the design of the Christophe de Margerie.

Viability and Governance

While the success of the 2017 voyage cannot be doubted, the future of Arctic shipping must be discussed seriously within the industry in terms of viability and governance. The transit of the LNG carrier benefitted from optimal ice conditions and weather, which permitted the expeditious nature of the journey. However, potential areas of concern have been highlighted for the future of the region as a hub of maritime activity, where a dangerous precedent could be established if regional governance is not improved. Concerns arising from the potential increase in maritime activity in the Arctic region include environmental impact, crisis response, issues with governance and operational challenges.

The infographic attachment explores some of the limitations to development of Arctic sea routes.

Ice Floe Predictions

At present, arctic maritime activity is limited by fluctuations in the ice floe, which only allows passage for certain vessels at certain times of year. However, predictions regarding the ongoing diminishment of the Arctic ice suggest that the ice floe could even disappear entirely by the turn of the century.

Over the past ten years, the ice floe has on average diminished by 4.3% based on averages per year. However, there are vast monthly fluctuations. Taking the month of September as an example, forecasts suggest that by 2030, 60% of the current area of ice will remain. This drops to 40% by 2060 and to just 10% by 2090. In the winter months ice coverage forecasts are 90% for 2030 and 85% by 2060.

Commercial Viability

Explorers first began navigating the Arctic sea routes back in the 19th century, with ships looking to navigate and map the region journeying between Greenland and Russia via the Canadian Arctic islands and Alaska. The issues these explorers encountered included the route being blocked for most of each year by impenetrable ice.

Global warming means that today, these routes are clear for more of the year, raising the possibility of commercially viable routes for shipping. The voyages may still be risky, but more and more shipping companies are beginning to explore these routes as a possibility for the future.

A total of 32 ships made the Northwest Passage crossing in 2017, although only one cargo ship was included in this figure. The Northern Sea Route remains a more viable option, although long-term viability depends on meeting the challenges posed by the harsh weather conditions. While global shipping numbers continue to increase, the number of vessels operating in the Northern Sea Route dropped during 2017.

The PDF attachment explains looks at the history and geography of the Northern Sea Route.