International Shipping and the Northern Sea Route

Publication: International Shipping and the Northern Sea Route (Global Development in the Arctic)

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Authors: Björn Gunnarsson and Arild Moe

CNARC member:  Fridtjof Nansen Institute (FNI)

Introduction: The Northern Sea Route (NSR) is the Russian term for the waterways north of Siberia. They form a part of the Northeast Passage (NEP), which is the historical term for the Arctic Sea passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Whereas NEP is a loose term, without strict geographical boundaries, the NSR is nowprecisely defined, as starting with the entry to the Kara Sea and stretching all the way to the Bering Strait. Northwards, it extends 200 nautical miles from the coast. In the Russian legislation, it is referred to as a ‘water area’ – akvatoriya. Within this area, there areseveral alternative shipping lanes which can be chosen depending on the ice situation or a vessel’s water depth requirements (Figure 13.1). The Russian regulations for shipping within this area are contested by some states, notably the United States. They hold that the regulations go further than permitted under the law of the sea. Nonetheless, commercial users respect the Russian administration (Solski, 2020).

During Soviet times, the NSR was open to foreign shipping only exceptionally. This changed with the speech by Mikhail Gorbachev in Murmansk in 1987, where he called for international cooperation in the Arctic generally and in shipping specifically (Åtland, 2008). In early 1991, the NSR was officially opened to international shipping. The decision was spurred by a reassessment of the security situation and the expectation of economic benefits. However, political declarations alone do not spur commercial interest. Use of the sea route, which peaked in 1987, plummeted after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The comprehensive International Northern Sea Route Programme was carried out in the 1990s analyzing the conditions and potential for international use of the sea route, but the international shipping industry generally felt that the ice situation made regular commercial navigation unpredictable and unsafe (Ragner, 2000). (to read more please go to the download link)