Climate change and Red Sea turbulence to drive Arctic shipping

By Malte Humpert (gCaptain) –

The waters of Russia’s Northern Sea Route, a seasonal shortcut between Europe and Asia, look set to welcome record transit traffic this summer. Route administrator Rosatom has already issued nearly 200 permits for ships seeking to travel along parts or all of the route.

Most are Russian-flagged ships engaged in delivering supplies to the Arctic. But an increasing number of foreign-flagged LNG carriers, crude oil tankers, and container ships look set to traverse the region this summer.

So far, Rosatom has issued permits for eight LNG carriers seeking to provide services to Novateks Yamal LNG and possibly the Arctic LNG 2 project. In contrast to the highly capable ice-class Arc7 LNG carriers that ply the port of Sabetta during year round, the summer season will see many conventional LNGCs venture into the Arctic.

Ice-free class ships Seapeak Yamal, LNG Dubhe, LNG Megrez, Phecda LNGAND LNG Worry all have received permission to operate independently in ice-free waters between 1 July and 31 October 2024 and in light ice conditions with icebreaker escort.

Three other carriers with limited ice protection, Yenisei River, Clear visionAND Lena River are approved for independent sailing in free or light ice conditions as well as above in case of escort.

Other LNGCs are likely to follow as Novatek looks to revamp its export logistics following US and EU sanctions.

During the summer of 2023, Russia for the first time shipped crude oil through the Arctic in non-ice-class tankers. At least five conventional Suezmax tankers transported products from ports in the Baltic to destinations in China. Additional volumes were transported on ships with ice protection combined for 1.5 million tons.

Russian officials have already confirmed that they intend to continue and expand these operations this summer. Experts at the Center for Advanced North Logistics predict a doubling or even tripling of transit traffic over the past year, with crude oil shipments identified as the main driver.

Uncertainty surrounding unrest in the Red Sea and the resulting diversions around Cape Horn could further increase the attractiveness of the 3,500-mile-long Arctic shipping lane. Seasonal ice conditions vary from summer to summer, but the road now routinely experiences weekly periods of little or no ice during the months of August, September and October.

This increase in schedule predictability has brought the first container shipping operators to the region. Last year the Chinese company NewNew Shipping completed seven services connecting St. Petersburg with Shanghai and Tianjin in China and Busan in South Korea. The operator aims to increase its offer to a dozen trips this summer.

As reported by gCaptain last week, the route is likely to see its first Panamex box carrier this summer. Operator Safetrans Line received a permit to ship the 4,890 TEU vessel Flying fish 1 on a Europe-Asia-Europe round trip in August and September.

Since Maersks first and only voyage to the Arctic in August 2018, it has shipped 3,600 TEU Venta Maersk from South Korea to Germany, most major shipping operators have publicly withdrawn from shipping through the Arctic. But the Northern Sea Route seems slated for additional ad hoc travel.

Safetrans lines Flying fish 1 routinely connects St. Petersburg with ports in China via the Suez Canal. Given the continued instability along the route, other niche operators may opt for seasonal diversions through the Arctic.

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