Ships scramble through the ice as winter arrives ‘early’ on the Northern Sea Route

More than 20 ships were stranded and delayed in the Arctic waters of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) after winter ice blocked the channels earlier than expected and they had to wait for help from icebreakers.

The Center for High North Logistic (CHNL) at the University of the North has appointed 17 of them, including the bulk carriers, the 74,300 dwt Golden Suek (built in 2011), the Golden Pearl (built in 2013), the new ships of 95,758 dwt Nordic Quinngua and Nordic Nuluujaak, and the 56,348 dwt Kumpula (built in 2012) and 17,259 dwt tanker Vladimir Rusanov (built in 1994) among those that ran aground.

The ships were then moved with the help of the nuclear powered icebreakers Vaygach (built in 1990) to the east and Yamal (built in 1992) to the west.

Some ship trackers have described a slow convoy of ships – the so-called Northern Delivery, which brings supplies to local communities, is escorted across the ice floe border off the islands of Novosibirsk by the Vaygach.

Other nearby ships are stopped and several are moored at Pevek seaport.

Icebreaker power

The 172,600 m3 icebreaker Arc7 LNG carrier Boris Davydov (built 2018) was also reported to assist the science vessel Mikhail Somov (built 1975) after it got stuck in the ice.

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In contrast, Arc7 LNG ships are still heading west via the NSR to Yamal LNG’s Sabetta terminal at speeds between 10 and 14 knots, sources said.

Russian observers said many ships missed the navigation window for the NSR this year before the ice closed leaving them stranded.

CHNL that although no vessel has been left unassisted, “it is evident that a single icebreaker, even if used logically and effectively, cannot handle such a situation without delay”.

He described the need to wait for help towards the end of the NSR navigation season as risky and said he confirmed the need for enough icebreakers.

“Despite the general trend of global warming, the Arctic is still the Arctic with variations in ice and weather conditions from year to year.”

CHNL said the strandings were due in part to the “very late delivery of the goods” to Pevek.

Winter trends

Reports in the national press blamed the poor weather forecast and questions are being raised about ships with no or low ice class using the Arctic Sea Route at the end of the season as Russia continues its plan to open the NSR for navigation all year round.

According to the Barents Observer, a layer of ice 30 centimeters thick had already formed over most of the Laptev Sea and eastern Siberian seas by the end of October. In previous years, the NSR has experienced increasingly light ice conditions.

Russian maritime observers stressed that there is a shortage of icebreakers for the region and that although new vessels are on order, these will take some time to come into service.

Other signs of a change in winter activity were observed in the area.

Eikland Energy’s iGIS / LNG data service records that the first ship-to-ship LNG cargo transfer of the season took place off the Russian island of Kildin between the 172,600 m3 Vladimir Voronin (built in 2019) and the 161,900 m3 Clean Ocean (built in 2014).

The service observes that the NSR ice is already thick in places, with some Arc7s apparently taking alternative routes.

Sovcomflot Christophe de Margerie’s 172,600 m3 Arc7 LNG carrier (built in 2017) follows the nuclear-powered 50 Let Pobedy icebreaker (built in 2007) through the eastern section of the Northern Sea Route on a first trip made in February 2021. Photo: Sovcomflot
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