Publications Éditoriaux de l'Ifri

Development of the Northern Sea Route: How great is the need for satellite observation? Actuelles de l'Ifri, The Europe & Space Series, No.14, March 2014

The sea route between Europe and Asia is significantly shorter via Arctic waters than via the Suez Canal. Changes in global climate have resulted in a diminishing of ice in Arctic waters. This has resulted in the Northern Sea Route establishing itself as a viable commercial alternative, which is expected to expand in the years ahead. Satellite observation is one of the methods employed to gather information about ice conditions, weather and oil spills, and is a prerequisite for ensuring the continued development of the new traffic.

Development of the Northern Sea Route: How great is the need for satellite observation?

The European colonial powers started investigating whether there were shorter transport routes via northern waters as early as in the 17th century. However, it was not until 1879 that the Swedish-Finnish explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskjold, as the first Western explorer, sailed to the Bering Strait. The transport route was expanded during the Soviet era, and in 1978 the first year-round transportation of iron and other metals commenced between Yenisey in the east and Murmansk in the west, supported by icebreakers in winter. Foreign vessels were first granted permission to traffic between east and west in Russian northern waters in July 1991, just a few months after the collapse of the Soviet Union.In 1997 the Finnish oil tanker the Uikku was the first non-Russian flagged vessel that sailed the entire Northern Sea Route. In 2012, 46 registered vessels used the passage. This figure rose the following year to 71. A total of 1.35 million metric tons comprising bulk, liquid, LNG and general cargo was transported in 2013. In 2030, transportation could account for one-quarter of all goods transport between Europe and Asia. This development would be dependent on the ice diminishing rapidly, but the researchers disagree on the speed at which the ice will melt. According to some estimates the entire Arctic could be ice-free by 2040.

Nonetheless, shipping companies that aim to use the new sea route face major challenges. The passage is still only fully navigable from the beginning of July to November in areas where only one-year old ice is formed. One-year old ice is around 1.6 metres thick. There is no fixed window for the period during which traffic is permitted. Everything is dependent on ice conditions. One of the challenges lies in receiving updated satellite information about ice conditions.

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Development of the Northern Sea Route: How great is the need for satellite observation?
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