Map of the Arctic region showing the Northern Sea Route, in the context of the Northeast Passage, and Northwest Passage[1]
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 (NSR) (Russian: Се́верный морско́й путь, Severnyy morskoy put, shortened to Севморпуть, Sevmorput) is a shipping route about 5600 km long, defined by Russian legislation as running from the entrances to the Novaya Zemlya straights in the west, along the Russian Arctic coast above Siberia through the Kara Sea, Laptev Sea, East Siberian Sea, and Chukchi Sea), to Cape Zhelaniya on the Bering Strait, at parallel 66 ° N and meridian of 168 ° 58′37 ″ W.[2]

The entire route lies in Arctic waters and within Russia's exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and is included in what has been called the Northeast Passage, analogous to Canada's Northwest Passage. The Northern Sea Route itself does not include the Barents Sea, and it therefore does not reach the Atlantic.[1][3][4]

The Northern Sea Route currently serves the Arctic ports and major rivers of Siberia by importing fuel, equipment, food and exporting timber and minerals. Some parts of the route are only free of ice for two months per year, but melting Arctic ice caps are likely to increase traffic and the commercial viability of the Northern Sea Route.[5][6] One study, for instance, projects "remarkable shifts in trade flows between Asia and Europe, diversion of trade within Europe, heavy shipping traffic in the Arctic and a substantial drop in Suez traffic. Projected shifts in trade also imply substantial pressure on an already threatened Arctic ecosystem."[7]

Proponents of using the sea route for global trade claim that because it is considerably shorter than the existing sea routes from Asia to Europe, usage emits less CO2,[8] by cutting time at sea, and fuel consumption, by more than half. The distance from Murmansk (Russia) to Yokohama (Japan) through the Suez Canal is 12,840 nautical miles, but only 5,770 nautical miles through the Northern Sea Route. For the corporate players in bulk shipping of relatively low-value raw materials, cost savings for fuel are a crucial driver to explore the Northern Sea Route for commercial transits, more than delivery time, or environmental concerns.

There are also new opportunities for tourism. It was reported in 2023 that Rosmorport, a state-owned agency of the Russian Ministry of Transport, has plans to run cruises for tourists in icebreakers along the entire Northern Sea Route between Murmansk and Vladivostok. [9]


Further information: History

The route was first conquered by Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld's Vega expedition with a single wintering in 1878–79.

The Northern Sea Route is one of several Arctic shipping routes. Since the mid-1930s the Northern Sea Route has been an officially managed and administered shipping route along the northern/Arctic coast of Russia. A convoy of seven brand new merchant vessels (900 DWT to 5,500 DWT) built for People's Republic of China but under Polish flag from Gdynia with the assistance of Soviet icebreakers reached port of Pevek (via Kara Gates, Vilkitsky, Dmitry Laptev and Sannikov Straits), two days of navigation before Bering Strait in 1956.[10] The administrative entity was sequentially updated, upgraded and renamed. Its current incarnation was the Federal State Budgetary Institution's establishment of The Northern Sea Route Administration in 2013.[11]

Two-thirds of the Arctic seas remain ice-free in summer, that is why ships have more route options. In August 2017, the first ship traversed the Northern Sea Route without the use of icebreakers.[12] According to the New York Times, this foreshadows more shipping through the Arctic, as the sea ice melts and makes shipping easier.[12] In 2018 Maersk Line sent the new "ice-class" container ship Venta Maersk through the route to gather data on operational feasibility, though they did not currently see it as commercially attractive.[13][14] Escort assistance was required for three days from the Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker 50 Let Pobedy.[15][16]

The Dutch Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis projected in 2015 that the Northern Sea Route may be ice-free by 2030, earlier than the Northwest Passage or Transpolar Sea Route.[17] A 2016 report by the Copenhagen Business School found that large-scale trans-Arctic shipping may become economically viable by 2040.[12][18]

As the Northern Sea Route is a strategically important transport artery, it can already be called economically profitable in comparison, for example, with the Suez Canal due to a number of reasons:

In 2018 the Russian government transferred the main responsibility for the Northern Sea Route to Rosatom which through its ROSATOMFLOT subsidiary manages the Russian nuclear powered icebreaker fleet based in Murmansk.[14][19]

Rosatom is a state corporation that organizes the navigation of vessels in the waters of the NSR in accordance with the Merchant Shipping Code, manages a fleet of powerful nuclear icebreakers, ensures the safety and uninterrupted operation of navigation, provides port services for gas tankers in case of unfavorable weather conditions. Rosatom also provides navigation and hydrographic support in the waters of the Northern Sea Route, develops the infrastructure of sea harbors, and manages the state property of these ports.[20] For this purpose, the Directorate of the Northern Sea Route was formed, that now manages three subordinate organizations "Atomflot" (ROSATOMFLOT), "Hydrographic Enterprise" and "ChukotAtomEnergo".

Recently, the "Main Directorate of the Northern Sea Route" ("Glavsevmorput") was established on the basis of the Naval Operations Headquarters of FSUE “Atomflot”.[21] The main purpose of the creation of the Glavsevmorput is to organize the navigation of vessels in the waters of the Northern Sea Route. Glavsevmorput Federal State Budgetary Institution solves the following tasks: ensuring the organization of icebreaking vessels taking into account the hydrometeorological, ice, and navigation conditions in the waters of the NSR; vessels navigation in the waters of the NSR; issuance, suspension, renewal, and termination of permits for sailing vessels in the waters of the NSR. To solve these tasks, the department arranges icebreaker fleet vessels in the waters of the NSR, monitors the traffic in the NSR water area, provides information on hydrometeorological, ice, and navigation conditions, and processes information from vessels located in the NSR water area. Rosatom is a Legacy Member of the Arctic Economic Council, that’s why all the operations are aimed to establish economic well-being, environmental neutrality, and human capital development.

Since 2008, the structure of Rosatom includes the Russian nuclear icebreaker fleet, which is the largest in the world with a container ship, four service vessels and seven nuclear-powered icebreakers (“Yamal”, "50 Let Pobedy", "Taymyr", "Vaygach", "Arctic", "Siberia" and "Ural"[22]).[14] The last three are the latest universal icebreakers of the 22220 project, and the world's only transport vessel with the Sevmorput nuclear power plant in operation.[23]

As the development of the icebreaking fleet is the most important condition for constant navigation in Arctic waters, other two universal nuclear icebreakers of project 22220 are currently being built in St. Petersburg. They are Yakutiya (2024) and Chukotka (2026). These icebreakers will be universal, which means they will be able to change the draft from 10.5 to 8.1 meters, depending on the depth, which will allow them to work both at sea and in the mouths of Siberian rivers. They will be equipped with a power plant with two RITM-200 reactors and will be capable of overcoming ice up to 3 meters thick. At the same time, the 5th and 6th icebreakers of the 22220 project are planned to be constructed as well as 4 non-nuclear icebreakers to serve shippers' investment projects.

In addition, the Zvezda shipyard is working on the construction of the world's most powerful nuclear icebreaker project 10510 "Russia", scheduled to commissioning in 2027. It is also planned to build two more icebreakers of this prototype. These icebreakers will be equipped with a two-reactor power plant with RITM-400 reactors with a capacity of 315 MW. The maximum ice thickness overcome by these icebreakers will exceed 4 meters.[24]

Economic assessment

Researchers and economists usually compare the Northern Sea Route with the conventional Suez Canal Route. The first route is shorter, which allow to save on fuel, but it is connected with environmental risks and increased operating costs.[25]

However, the above-mentioned research can be considered disputable and incomplete, as it does not consider such factors like the reduced length of the Northern Sea Route (comparing to the Suez Canal) and, therefore, reduced CO2 emissions;[8] the absence of charge payments for the passage; no risks of a pirate attack and, accordingly, no need to insure the cargo; the reduced cost of journey due to its reduced length.

Some studies recommend the joint usage of the two routes where the Northern Sea Route is used in summer when it is almost ice-free, and the Suez Canal Route is sailed in the rest of the year.[26] The researchers also claim that the economic feasibility of the NSR largely depends on its weather conditions.

Even though the Arctic ice is melting and Polar routes are being extensively studied, the amount of cargo shipped through the Northern Sea Route (NSR) remains low in comparison to the Suez Canal. Though, the cargo traffic is steadily growing every year. The research shows that the NSR-SCR combined shipping scheme can be more competitive than the use of the Suez Canal Route only. If the shipping company provides sufficient loading on the NSR, uses a reliable ice-class vessel for navigation and the price of crude oil is high, the economic advantage of the NSR-SCR combined shipping scheme is obvious. Ice thickness directly affects the shipping cost. Now, when the Arctic ice is slowly melting due to weather conditions, the cost of icebreaking service is expected to reduce. Also, vessels of some ice classes can sail on the NSR independently. That is why the NSR icebreaker escort fee may be several times lower than the SCR toll.[27]

State Corporation Rosatom assumes the possibility and functions of the NSR and ensures the safety of navigation on the high technological level. Besides organizing the navigation along the NSR and the icebreaking services with the world's only nuclear icebreaker fleet, Rosatom is planning to implement the Arctic Ice Regime Shipping System (AIRSS) methodology. This system will represent a digital space that will provide various services to cargo carriers, shipowners, captains, insurers, and other participants in the logistics market on the NSR. In particular, it involves issuing permits for the passage of vessels, monitoring, dispatching, and managing the work of the fleet. The single digital platform will collect information from all the available sources, for example, hydrometeorological data, the location of ships and icebreakers, port congestion. As a result, users will receive an advanced "ice navigator" that will allow to plot a precise route in view of the changing ice conditions of the NSR. In other words, the study of Sibul et al. proposed a path-finding algorithm for the NSR strategic assessment.[28] It uses real weather as input and find the optimal shipping route.[29]

Economic effects

Number of complete through transits per flag state.[30]

Year Total Russia Singapore Finland Norway Germany Spain China Greece Hong Kong Sweden Netherlands Portugal Other
2007 2 2
2008 3 3
2009 5 5
2010 10 10
2011 41 26 4 2 2 1 1 5
2012 46 18 6 5 2 15
2013 71 46 2 2 2 1 18
2014 53 47 3 3
2015 18 10 2 1 1 4
2016 18 7 1 2 8
2017 27 9 2 3 2 1 10
2018 27 8 1 7 1 1 2 6
2019 37
2020 62
2021 85 12 4 11 7 8 13 30

In 2021 a record number of transit voyages used the Northern Sea Route. 85 ships (among which only 12 voyages were made by vessels under the Russian flag) passed the NSR with around 2.75m tons of cargo.[31]

Environmental assesments

According to the Fourth IMO GHG Study 2020, sea cargo transportation is responsible for 2.9% of global emissions.[32] In the next 20 years the trading maritime volume is expected to double.[33] Marine transport produces about 1 gigaton of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions per year and has been struggling for many years to reduce its environmental impact. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has obliged sea carriers to reduce CO2 emissions by 50% by 2050.

Marine transport generates 14% of all transport emissions, and effective techniques that could replace marine engines powered by fossil fuels are not currently used, in the case of nuclear power, or still in modern era redevelopment, such as wind and solar power. [34] Due to its shorter length, navigation on the NSR contributes to reducing the carbon footprint of maritime transport, although this entails considerable risks for fragile Arctic ecosystems.

See also



  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) (PDF). Norway: Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME), Arctic Council. Archived (PDF) from the original on November 1, 2014.
  2. ^ Акватория Северного морского пути. ФГБУ Администрация Северного морского пути = The water area of the Northern Sea Route. FSBI Administration of the Northern Sea Route. Дата обращения: 9 декабря 2022.Архивировано 7 марта 2022 года.
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Further reading