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01:44 | Aug 16 | 2011

The Arctic – a Treasure Island

It's no secret that the modern world “craves” for the natural treasures of the Arctic – for this reason the operation on the Northern Sea Route grows from year to year. What difficulties and what prospects does the Arctic cherish nowadays?


The Arctic has always attracted people by its riches. For a long time we have been dreaming about the development of the north of Siberia which was called the country of the future by Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen. On the arrival of the first pioneers there appeared a need for a safe route from the Atlantic through the northern seas to the Pacific Ocean. A deceptively short way became a place of death to many brave explorers from different countries. Time passed, and for decades then Soviet and now Russian icebreakers plow safe paths in the Arctic ice.

From Arkhangelsk to China

The idea of going by sea to China can be first found in Russian written sources since the end of the XV century. But the city and the port of Arkhangelsk were founded only in 1584. Even then following manufacturers governmental expeditions were sent there to look for natural resources.

In 1713–1714 a prominent Russian politician and the construction manager of the fleet Fedor Saltykov drawn up a project of navigation by northern seas from Arkhangelsk to China. The project received the approval of Peter I and became a plan for the largest pre-revolutionary expedition – the Great Northern Expedition. Its main objective was clearly stated in the imperial decree (1715): “... find out a way through the Arctic Sea to firmly connect our eastern borders and Kamchatka with the European part of Russia”. The expedition headed by Vitus Bering and Alexey Chirikov consisted of 10 crews. For the first time in the history after incredible pains and hardships they managed to map the whole coastline from the White Sea to Kamchatka which took them 11 years (1733–1743).

An important outcome of this expedition was the discovery of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands in 1742.

The Soviet Union has also paid close attention to the exploitation of the North and the development of deposits of precious metals, iron, copper, etc. In 1926 the USSR unilaterally demarcated its Arctic sector limiting it by the 32nd meridian in the West and by the 180th in the East to the North Pole, and they were unshakeable until 1997 when Russia joined the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982.

In 1932 the icebreaker Sibiryakov followed every inch of the Northern Sea Route. After this a governmental decision was made on the final lay of the path from the White Sea to the Bering Strait. The navigation on the Northern Sea Route began in 1935. Its length from the Kara Strait to the Providence Bay is 5600 km or 3024 nautical miles. Major ports along the Northern Sea Route are Igarka, Dudinka, Dixon, Tiksi, Pevek, Providence. The navigation period lasts for 2–4 months (in some areas it is longer with the help of icebreakers).

The road of life is falling off

With the collapse of the Soviet Union the functioning of the Northern Sea Route has practically ceased. Here is what the first President of the Sakha Republic Mikhail Nikolaev writes about it: “During the Soviet Union times the Northern Sea Route used to be a true road of life. Now the flow of cargo fell multiply. The infrastructure, shipping environment and ports are in critical condition. Federal governments are busy with their petty intrigues inside the Garden Ring [the central part of Moscow – ed. note], and consideration of the northern problems is pushed very far aside in the conditions of permanent changes in the Government of the Russian Federation.” At present the problem remains as pressing as it was 10 years ago.

According to scientists, hydrocarbon reserves in the Arctic comprise about 25% of their total quantity on the planet. It is of the utmost interest even for non-Arctic states such as China and Japan. It is known that China is building its own icebreaker to gather scientific data in the Arctic.

Today the production and transportation infrastructure of the Northern Sea Route is extremely worn out. To ensure Arctic navigation it is required to construct modern ice-class vessels, to restore the ruined system of hydro-meteorological stations and of long- and short-range ice forecasting, etc. In addition, to increase the cargo traffic from the regions it is necessary to expand the park of sea-river vessels. Now only six nuclear icebreakers work in the Arctic as it costs at least $260 million to build a new icebreaker. The main player in the transport market on the Northern Sea Route is Norilsk Nickel which delivers from 1 to 1.2 million tons of cargo annually and is actually the only user of the Northern Sea Route.

However, the remains of our icebreaker fleet still represent a strong competition to the northern fleets of Western countries. The expedition of 2007 proved it when for the first time a ship afloat reached the North Pole and the Russian flag was hoisted at the floor of the North Pole itself. Then for many it became clear that the struggle for resources in the Arctic had begun.

To the international main line

Russia signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, article 76 of which says: “The continental shelf of a coastal state comprises the seabed and subsoil of the submarine areas that extend beyond its territorial sea throughout the natural prolongation of its land territory to the outer edge of the continental margin mainland, or the distance of 200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea where the outer edge of the continental margin does not extend up to that distance.”

But at the same time, the coastal State can extend its territory beyond the 200-mile radius. This applies to the subsurface natural resources but does not apply to water resources and does not restrict the freedom of navigation. The rationale for the extension of such rights should be the proof of shelf origin of the floor of the adjacent World's water. The Convention allows a state which has ratified it to apply for additional 150 miles, not later than 10 years after ratification. But the border of the continental shelf is determined by the geological data and, in this case, the area of this zone may be substantially bigger. Russia lays a claim to the territory of 1.2 million square kilometers which hydrocarbon potential is 4.9 billion tons of standard fuel.

Combining the resource potential of the Arctic and the transport capacity of the Northern Sea Route, which after addressing the infrastructure constraints would be capable to process a flow of goods as heavy as 150 million tons per year (about 5% of world traffic), would allow to organize a competitive regional system of ocean management which could form the basis of national security in the Arctic. Therefore it is suggested to develop the Northern Sea Route which today essentially remains a Russian domestic transportation through-passage into an international main line. But there are some technical difficulties as the fleet of the icebreakers is getting old, and the existing ships are designed to escort vessels with 20–25 thousand tons of deadweight while the commercial class of ocean-going vessels begins from 50–60 thousand tons.

A necessary condition for the effective functioning of the Northern Sea Route is the active participation of the state in the work of this line, particularly in the organization of a year-round navigation on the entire route. A volitional decision to build modern nuclear icebreakers that can escort vessels with deadweight up to 70 tons through fields of ice up to 3 m thick is needed to accomplish that. This will allow using a high-latitude route which has more depth avoiding shallow Arctic straits. 

Nicholay Kychkin