The Complexities of Arctic Maritime Traffic




Christophe de Margerie at the dock in Yamal. Photo: Dimitriy Monakov

In late August 2017, the Russian icebreaking liquefied natural gas (LNG) carrier Christophe de Margerie made headlines in maritime traffic news for a record-setting transit of the Northern Sea Route (NSR). The ship transited the 2,193 nautical mile NSR in just six days, twelve hours, and fifteen minutes. It completed the entire journey from Hammerfest, Norway, to Boryeong, South Korea, in nineteen days—nearly thirty percent faster than the traditional Suez Canal route. During the transit, the vessel averaged just over fourteen knots, remarkable given that part of the transit was through ice fields that were 1.2 meters thick.1)

Such an accomplishment has fueled optimism, particularly by Russia and China, on the potential for the Arctic to become a viable alternative to normal maritime routes through the Suez Canal.2) Yet the impressive nature of this achievement must also give rise to serious discussions on both viability and governance in the High North. The transit, which benefited from optimal weather and ice conditions that permitted an expeditious journey for the ice-hardened vessel, highlights potential areas of concern for future maritime activity in the region and could establish a dangerous precedent if improvements to regional governance are not made. This paper examines the nuances of Arctic shipping, including construction and operational requirements, and assesses concerns which will result from increased maritime activity in the region. Specifically, the paper highlights operational challenges and further explores issues with governance, crisis response, and the impact of increased traffic on the fragile Arctic region. It further identifies solutions to these challenges through cooperation between nations and organizations with interests in the Arctic.

The journey of the Christophe de Margerie

It is necessary to better understand the Christophe de Margerie and the mission with which it was tasked to appreciate why this transit was a rare event, rather than one portending the arrival of a serious competitor to the Suez Canal. The world’s first ice class LNG carrier—part of an anticipated class of fifteen vessels—is a cooperative project between Aker Arctic Technology, Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering (DSME), and Yamal LNG (an integrated natural gas production, liquefaction, and shipping project located on the Russian Yamal Peninsula). The LNG carrier received the highest class rating among existing marine transport vessels for operating in polar waters given by the Russian Maritime Register of Shipping (RMRS). This rating, known as an Arc 7 rating, is equivalent to the International Association of Classification Societies (IACS) Polar Class 3 rating.

Designed by Aker Arctic, the Christophe de Margerie is an LNG tanker with a length of 299 meters, beam of 50 meters, and draft of 11.8 meters. The vessel is capable of independent navigation and icebreaking in ice up to 2.1 meters thick. This is achieved through the utilization of Azipods (ABB’s gearless propulsion system) and the Double Acting Ship (DAS) principle, whereby the ship can sail in reverse utilizing its ice-hardened stern and propellers to mill through heavy ice conditions, albeit at a significantly slower rate of speed. The design permits independent navigation through the Northern Sea Route during parts of summer and autumn, and potentially year round navigation in the Kara Sea. The vessel has a cargo capacity of 172,600 cubic meters and can achieve an open water speed of 19.5 knots. The anticipated service area is the Northern Sea Route and Northeast Passage, to carry resources from Yamal and Murmansk to Asia, Europe, and India.3)

Implications for maritime traffic in the Arctic

In terms of maritime traffic in the Arctic, which largely consists of bulk cargo vessels transporting natural resources vice containerized vessels, the Christophe de Margerie is revolutionary as it brings forth tremendous operational capabilities to the Arctic. The class was designed to service the Yamal LNG project, with anticipated year-round navigation through the Arctic, in accordance with a twenty year contract signed by Yamal Trade and Fluxys LNG for transshipment of up to eight million tons of LNG per year, supporting deliveries from the Yamal Peninsula to Asian markets.4) Indeed, the Christophe de Margerie arrived at the Yamal berth in November to load the inaugural liquified natural gas cargo destined for China.5) The second ship in the new class, the Boris Vilkitsky, berthed alongside the Christophe de Margerie for the inaugural loading. President Putin arrived in Sabetta on 8 December 2017 to mark the first official loadout of LNG from the Novatek project.6)

Yet the vision for the Christophe de Margerie extends beyond the Arctic. The ship reflects international interest in the region. It was completed well ahead of schedule at DSME’s Okpo shipyard in South Korea. While the Christophe de Margerie has joined the Sovcomflot fleet, the fifteen vessels in the class will be owned and operated by four shipowners: Sovcomflot, Teekay (in partnership with China LNG Shipping), Dynagas, and Mitsui OSK Lines (in partnership with China Shipping Group).

These are vessels specifically designed to operate in the harsh conditions of the High North. Features include anti-icing and de-icing capabilities, piping for the ballast system to prevent freezing, seawater cooling recirculation systems, exhaust gas bypass systems, specific crew safety features, and an optimized hull design.7) The number of similarly designed vessels is very small, and these ships support Arctic destination shipping (transport of bulk commodities to market), rather than global transit shipping. Indeed, the Cristophe de Margerie and others in the class would be less efficient to operate in warmer weather routes due to the specific design features that make them so effective in Arctic waters. As such, the vessels will remain in the Arctic region to optimize their service life.

Despite the challenging conditions of the region (see below), there is some interest in increasing maritime traffic in the Arctic. At the 2011 Arctic Forum, then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin expressed his ambitions8) for the Arctic by declaring that “The shortest route between Europe’s largest markets and the Asia-Pacific region lie across the Arctic. I want to stress the importance of the Northern Sea Route as an international transport artery that will rival traditional trade lanes in service fees, security, and quality.”

Indeed, the East Asia to Northern Europe shipping route is 11,200 nm (20,742 km) through the Suez Canal, but only 6,500 nm (12,038 km) through the Arctic – a difference that can decrease transit time by 12 to 15 days on the Rotterdam to Yokohama route. The China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) Executive Vice President Ding Nong noted in 2016: “As the climate becomes warmer and polar ice melts faster, the Northeast Passage has appeared as a new trunk route connecting Asia and Europe.”9) US Senator Angus King has stated that the Arctic “has the potential to become a significant waterway that links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.”10) Yet this ambitious vision for the region remains unreached and, for the foreseeable future, unattainable.

Arctic Challenges to Maritime Traffic

Arctic navigation poses tremendous challenges to vessels navigating the region. This has been long recognized by mariners, with Arctic explorer William Scoresby writing in 1820 that “the navigation of the Polar seas, which is peculiar, requires in a particular manner, an extensive knowledge of the nature, properties and usual motions of the ice, and it can only be performed to the best advantage by those who have long experience with working a ship in icy regions.”11) While sea ice coverage is diminishing, the Arctic region is still a hostile environment. Intense cold—dropping to -40 degrees Celsius in winter—can hinder functionality of machinery and be a danger to sailors and passengers onboard vessels.12) Multiyear ice, that which does not melt on a seasonal basis, can be more than three meters thick, challenging even icebreakers seeking passage. By contrast, first-year ice is typically less than one meter thick, making it more easily transited by icebreakers or ice-class ships with reinforced hulls. Yet the increasingly open water of the High North has also amplified the unpredictability of ice floes, as the melting of one-year ice can lead large blocks of multiyear ice to flow into potential sea lanes. Ice floes lack predictability and conditions vary seasonally. Furthermore, the weather conditions of the Arctic compound the challenges posed by ice, as transit is often challenging due to severe storms. In the summer, heavy fog is common in the region, obscuring visibility and demanding vessels to slow down to avoid colliding with unexpected ice or vessels. In fact weather conditions are expected to become more unpredictable as ice diminishes, particularly due to the albedo and water vapor effects.13)

Viability of Arctic Shipping

The unpredictability of the region’s weather and ice conditions combines with tonnage limitations and the demands of a ‘just in time’ shipping model to raise serious concerns about long-term viability of transit shipping in the region. Transit shipping is that which utilizes an Arctic route to connect the trading hubs of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, whereas destination shipping is the movement of bulk resources (such as oil, gas, LNG, or minerals) from the point of extraction to markets outside of the Arctic region. The International Maritime Organization Polar Code Advisory identifies four potential Arctic shipping routes: the Northern Sea Route, Northwest Passage, Transpolar Sea Route, and Arctic Bridge.14) Whereas the Christophe de Margerie was engaged in destination shipping—an increasingly viable option as regional resources are explored and extracted—transit shipping is far more controversial.

The commercial sector has demonstrated lukewarm interest in the possibility of transit shipping despite the significantly shorter route. For container shipping of goods (as opposed to bulk shipping of raw commodities), shipping companies rely on economies of scale and on-time delivery within a tight schedule; ever-increasing capacities of ships help to lower costs.15) The draft in many parts of the Arctic is a significant limiting factor, as the largest and most economical vessels simply cannot transit the region regardless of time or weather factors. Drafts vary tremendously along both the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage (indeed, of the seven routes of the NWP, three are considered generally unsuitable for navigation while the remainder are considered difficult to navigate due to the pattern of ice drift), only the Transpolar Route (as yet inaccessible) permits an unlimited draft.16)

Ships transiting the Arctic must adhere to beam limitations of their icebreaker escorts. The largest icebreakers generally have a beam width of 25-30 meters , with most icebreakers being much smaller. However, the workhorse of the global cargo fleet, the Panamax-size cargo ship, requires a 32 meter beam. To operate in the Arctic, cargo ships will likely be limited to a capacity of 3,000 Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit (TEU) or below, resulting in a higher cost per TEU as compared with a Suez Canal transit, where ships routinely carry more than 18,000 TEUs.

Operating in the region can also be vastly more expensive due to decreased transit speeds and the potential for significant weather delays. Icebreaker escorts, provided by Rosatomflot’s fleet of icebreakers, are costly—particularly if an icebreaker escort is required for a large gross tonnage vessel through all zones of the NSR. For example, an Arc4 rated hull of a 120,000 ton vessel requiring escort through all seven zones would be just under $560k (assuming a Ruble-USD exchange rate of 57.5) in the summer-autumn period and $1.4M during the winter-spring.17) The 18% Russian VAT may also be added. Larger gross tonnage vessels receive a lower price per ton rate for this tariff. Moreover, ship-owners must pay increased insurance costs due to the higher risks associated with the High North’s lack of infrastructure and poor weather conditions.

The lack of infrastructure in the region further compounds transits. While improvements are being made, the region generally has poor communications and satellite coverage. Vessels must contend with communications impacted by atmospheric phenomena, latitude challenges, and ionospheric effects. While improving connectivity is a priority of the Finnish Arctic Council Chairmanship (2017-2019), it will require significant investments. Hydrographic surveys, channel markers, deepwater ports, and emergency response units are also being improved, but pose serious challenges to current operations in the region.

Given these significant constraints, it is unlikely that the Arctic will become a viable alternative for transit shipping any time in the near future. Indeed, the Northern Sea Route has only a fraction of vessel traffic as compared to the Suez Canal. As of 22 September 2017, 106 vessels were operating in the region, but these were primarily intra-Northern Sea Route journeys, including significant activity around the Yamal and Gydan Peninsulas, where Gazprom Neft and Novatek, in partnership with Total SA, are developing the Bovanenkovo, Yamal LNG, and Arctic LNG projects. By 1 November 2017, that number had dropped to 25 vessels.18) These numbers stand in stark contrast to global shipping numbers. According to the Centre for High North Logistics and the Suez Canal Transit Authority, 2016 saw just 19 vessels and 214,513 tons of cargo transited the Northern Sea Route, as compared with 16,800 vessels and 974 million tons of cargo that transited the Suez Canal that year. Indeed, traffic has diminished along the NSR since the peak in 2013 with 71 vessels and 1.36 million tons of cargo (as compared to 16,600 vessels and 915 million tons of cargo through the Suez Canal in 2013) due to more challenging ice conditions.

Yet, there is no question that maritime traffic in the High North is rising. The US Coast Guard District 17 (Alaska) noted 485 Bering Strait transits in 2016, down slightly from 540 in 2015, but up significantly from 220 transits in 2008. Vessel traffic includes merchant vessels such as cargo ships, tankers, bulk carriers, and tugs, but also research vessels, cruise ships, and even private adventurers on sailing and motor vessels. In 2016 there were 290 vessels that passed within the District 17 Arctic Area of Interest (extending northward from the Bering Strait to the North Pole), a massive rise from the 120 vessels noted in 2008. (US Coast Guard District 17 (2017) D17 Arctic Maritime Traffic Trends. US Coast Guard Brief.))

Undoubtedly, activity levels will continue to rise in the Arctic due to the immense economic resources being discovered in the region. For example, with the oceans warming, fishing stocks may be migrating northwards. Fishing fleets from a multitude of countries may seek to follow new fishing opportunities, potentially venturing into the High North. Yet shipping activities in the Arctic will vary significantly, depending on the particular area of the Arctic, the type of shipping, and resource extraction activity.

While maritime traffic in the region will still be a fraction of overall global traffic, operating in the Arctic poses significant challenges. In 2016, there were 55 reported shipping incidents north of the Arctic Circle.19) The rising number of vessels in the region is worrisome due to the increased potential for vessel incidents (such as groundings, mechanical failure, ice damage, fires) and lack of robust response capabilities in the region. While the entry into force of the Polar Code on 1 January 2017 will hopefully improve standards, it will also require regular updates to keep pace with changes in ice conditions and risk. Safety of maritime traffic in the region demands improved governance, response capabilities, and maritime domain awareness.

Challenges of Governance

The shipping community is currently ill-suited to respond to an Arctic shipping emergency, as it lacks well-developed protocols and capabilities. Infrastructure development and improving governance will be critical to ensuring both safety and the protection of a fragile environment. While progress is being made, the region still lacks complete hydrographic surveys, reliable communication tools, and robust search and rescue capabilities. A crisis at sea—whether in the form of a stranded vessel or an oil spill—could be potentially devastating for the mariners and environment alike. It is imperative that the Arctic states leverage existing regional governance to improve regulation of maritime traffic and response to regional emergencies.

The Arctic Council functions as a coordinating mechanism for member states and organizations and has a mandate to promote “cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States, Arctic indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants on common Arctic issues, in particular on issues of sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic.”20) In 2011, the Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic was the first-ever legally binding agreement negotiated under the auspices of the Arctic Council.21) In May 2013, the Council members signed the Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic to improve procedures for combating oil spills in the region. The Council is a useful forum for member states and organizations to discuss Arctic matters, though has limitations in both its mandate and lack of enforcement mechanisms.

The International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency responsible for issues related to the global maritime industry, published the voluntary Guidelines for Ships Operating in Arctic Ice-covered Waters in 2010 and finalized a Polar Code in 2014, governing all vessels operating in polar waters. The Code provides rules and standards to ensure international safety and environmental protection. However, only parts of the Code are binding, with other parts offering recommendations for vessels operating in polar waters. Yet, the Russians also have specific rules and regulations for the Northern Sea Route that have not yet entirely been reconciled with the Polar Code.

There are other international frameworks in place that guide activity in the Arctic. The 2008 Ilulissat Declaration between the five Arctic coastal states established that outstanding issues in the region would be solved in accordance with current international law. Bilateral agreements, such as the 2010 Barents Sea Agreement between Norway and Russia, have sought to clarify territorial disputes. The 2015 Declaration Concerning the Prevention of Unregulated High Seas Fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean was signed by Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the US. Numerous other bilateral and multilateral agreements have also been signed, providing a patchwork of guidelines and regulations for the region.

The Way Forward

Although significant progress has been made on Arctic governance, there is still much to be done, particularly for maritime traffic in the region. The successful transit of the Christophe de Margerie in a record-breaking passage without an icebreaker escort may obscure the real challenges and limitations of maritime traffic in the High North. The voyage should prompt thoughtful analysis on travel throughout the Arctic region, as trends indicate that maritime traffic will continue to rise as ice coverage diminishes. The Arctic remains a region filled with potential dangers, high costs of insurance and icebreaker escort, and uncertain governance.

It must be noted that the Christophe de Margerie transited the NSR, which is claimed by Russia as internal waters that fall under Russian jurisdiction. Had an emergency arisen, it would have likely fallen within Russian jurisdiction and response, but is important to note that a crisis anywhere in the region has the potential to impact the fragile Arctic ecosystem. This, coupled with the challenges of a prompt and adequate response in the Arctic environment, demands that nations work together in the region.

Russia, as the administrating country for the Northern Sea Route, could be well placed to lead a process of standardization of rules and regulations for the region, in cooperation with the Arctic Council. The Northern Sea Route Administration (NSRA) was established by the Russian government in 2013 to organize navigation along the NSR, with specific mandates to ensure safe navigation and protect the marine environment from pollution.22) The NSRA is generally well-organized, maintaining awareness of vessel transits, and publishing rules mandating icebreaker requirements under certain circumstances including season and ice class rating of the respective ship. While there are ships carrying flags of various countries—indeed the NSRA received 597 applications for 2017 transits within or along the NSR by vessels flagged in nearly twenty countries—the vast majority (504) are Russian flagged vessels.23) This, combined with Russian jurisdiction over its internal waters, gives Russia significant influence if they were determined to improve maritime standards in the region.

To improve efficiencies, Russia is currently integrating Northern Sea Route agencies (NSRA, Rosatomflot’s icebreakers, and Ministry of Transport controlled ports) and placing them under the control of a single entity, likely Rosatom’s new Arctic Division. Yet, doing so may decrease transparency of the NSR and increase safety concerns. Indeed, by 20 October 2017 the NSRA has recorded 85 safety violations24) for 2017. Nearly half of these stemmed from operating in conditions beyond the vessel’s ice class specifications. The majority of these vessels were Russian flagged, though data is not available on what penalties—if any—the vessels received for violating the rules. Currently, the Polar Code relies upon the nation flagging the vessel to ensure to enforce standards, though it is widely known that certain flags of convenience are less adept at enforcing rules. Arctic states must work together under both the IMO and Arctic Council framework to clearly establish more effective enforcing mechanisms to ensure safety of vessels in the region, since they are most likely to be involved in a crisis due to both proximity and economic interests.

While the Polar Code and agreements negotiated through the Arctic Council forum are a solid foundation, more attention must be given to establishing strict protocols and response capabilities. The Finnish Chair of the Arctic Council has established a priority of increasing cooperation both within the Council and between the Arctic Council and the Arctic Economic Council. A top priority is the improvement of connectivity, which has immediate positive implications for a crisis at sea.25)

Given the severity of consequences of a regional disaster and the paucity of response capabilities in the region, the Arctic is a region particularly well suited to cooperation. Further, international organizations, such as the International Maritime Organization, are already cooperating to address regional challenges. Historically, the Arctic Council has acted as a forum for cooperation on critical issues like the protection of indigenous peoples, environmental concerns, and search and rescue. These are issues which affect all Arctic states and many of the observer countries and organizations that have interests in the region. Russia is well positioned to lead efforts to strengthen governance, crisis response, and regional cooperation given its robust interests and assets in the region. Failure to cooperate now could be catastrophic in a crisis and would almost certainly result in high environmental and human costs given the lack of search and rescue capabilities, communications, and regional infrastructure currently in place in the High North.

Rachael Gosnell is pursuing doctoral studies in International Security and Economic Policy at the University of Maryland, with a focus on maritime security in the Arctic. She holds a MA in International Security Studies from Georgetown University, a Masters in Engineering Management from Old Dominion University, and a Bachelors of Science in Political Science from the US Naval Academy. She currently teaches Political Science at the US Naval Academy and is the Chair of the US Naval Institute Editorial Board. All views expressed are her own and do not reflect the US Department of Defense or the US Naval Academy.