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N.G. BABICH,
Chief of Sea Operations in the Western Arctic ОАО «Murmansk Shipping Company»

«Siberia and the Northern ocean will make the Russian State mighty.
The Northern ocean, by the way, is a spacious field where Russian glory can grow,
combined with an unprecedented benefit through the invention of the East-Northern navigation»
M.V. Lomonosov
 
 


The term "Northern Sea Route" is considered historically stable beginning with the year 1932, the time of the creation of Northern Sea Route Head Office the task of which was «to explore the whole seaway from the White Sea to the Bering Strait in details, to equip this way and to maintain it in perfect state in order to secure safety navigation along this way». It took three decades to fulfil this task. There are numerous synonyms of the notion - the Great Northern Route, the Arctic Sea Transport System, the Russian Polar way and North-East Passage, that is the passage that connects the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans through the Arctic ocean and the seas washing the Russian coast of Eurasia (as distinct from the Northwest Passage going through the waters of the Canadian-Alaskan Arctic).

According to the Federal Law «About the inland sea waters, territorial seas and adjacent zone of the Russian Federation» as well as according to the working «Navigation Regulations along the lines of the Northern Sea Route» «The Northern Sea Route is the national transport communication system of the USSR that covers inner sea waters, territorial seas (territorial waters) or the economic zone of the USSR adjacent to the northern coasts of the USSR which includes routes fit for Arctic voyages, bounded by the Western Gates to Novaya Zemlya straits and by the North-trending meridian from Mys Zhelaniya in the west, by the parallel 66°N and meridian 168°58'37"W in the east in the Bering Strait». In the Russian Arctic the Northern Sea Route is subdivided into two parts - into the western and the eastern regions. As the piloting along the Northern Sea Route is carried out through the ice of the adjacent Barents and Bering seas, too, the use of the terms "the eastern and the western sectors of the Arctic" should be considered justifiable and politically correct. The border between the regions corresponds to the meridian 125°E.

Thus the Northern Sea Route - Sevmorput - includes all navigable sea ways from the Barents Sea to the Chuckchee Sea and the Bering Strait and comprises the waters of the Arctic seas, as well as the part of the Arctic Ocean within the exclusive economic zone of the RF that stretches for 200 nautical miles to the north of the northernmost points of the archipelagos and islands lying in the seas of the Russian sector of the Arctic (Franz Josef Land, Novaya Zemlya, New Siberian Islands, Wrangel Island). Here it should be noted that till now, at certain symposiums, Norwegian specialists in the sphere of the international law of the sea, for example, demonstrate geographical maps where the Northern Sea Route is located exclusively (in their opinion) within the territorial waters of Russia, that is in the 12-mile zone adjacent to the continental coast. But, as they say, a map is not the territory yet (detailed information see in N.G. Babich, «About legal regulations of navigation along the lines of the Northern Sea Route», Murmansk Collection on the Arctic, 2002).

Nowadays the so-called near-shore, seawards and high-latitude routes of the Sevmorput are fully developed. Those Sevmorput navigation routes through the North Pole developed by the Russian icebreaker seafarers (since 1977 several Russian icebreakers have been to the North Pole - the icebreakers of the Murmansk Shipping Company «Arktika», «Rossia», «Sibir», «So-vetsky Soyuz», «Yamal», «Kapitan Dranitsyn» - the total quantity of visits to the North Pole made 36 times by the beginning of the year 2004) cannot be assigned to the lines of the Northern Sea Route, but they are strong confirmations of our priority in the development of seaways within the whole Russian Arctic.

The choice of ice navigation variants from the existing variety of the routes is defined by a specific character of the scheduled tasks accomplished by the vessels, by the opportunity to use the easiest ice pilotage routes1.

In the Russian interests, the Northern Sea Route secures, first of all, functioning of the state transport infrastructure, especially in the regions difficult of access - archipelagos, islands, seas and coasts of the Far North, central regions of Eastern and Western Siberia. It creates a uniform system that unites meridional inland waterways of the great Siberian rivers and latitudinal sea routes stretching to the west and to the east of the country and secures coastal and export freight flow.

The Northern Sea Route is unique not only for Russia, but, from many perspectives (geographical, economical, social, environmental, geopolitical) for the whole Earth civilization, too. An illustration to the latter statement can be the authoritative opinion of the academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences N.N. Moiseev who said: «The planetary economic structure is determined by three centres of economic might: the USA, the Atlantic and the Pacific regions... The planetary community needs the organisation of a cheap traffic system between two, most quickly developing regions of the planet - its Pacific and Atlantic areas. And we seem to be able to offer this opportunity. The transport infrastructure of Russia will serve not only a cementation of our huge country, it can also become one of the most effective sources of money and can give Russia a chance to use industrial and technological achievements connected with these regions. The Russian Polar Way, or the Northern Sea Route as it is usually called, is one of the most important constituents of the transport infra-List of vessels of the present linear ice-breaker fleet structure of Eurasia». (Journal «Energy» № 7,2000).

Let's refer to another authoritative opinion, the official one in this case -the opinion of the President of Russia V.V. Putin which he expressed aboard the icebreaker «Rossia» on the 5th of April 2000 during his visit to Murmansk. «We shouldn't forget about one more important feature of the Northern Sea Route -about its transit potential. Today it is used mainly for inner transportation and for the export transit. But in the future it can become a passage for international commercial freight flows. This is important from two points of view:

First, we can exploit the infrastructure of the Sevmorput actively and make the most efficient use of it securing its self-repayment. Second, the development of transit traffic here can allow Russia to find a new niche in the system of the international division of labour already in the nearest future.
I think there is no need to explain that this is not only the development of the Russian economy, but also a distinct way for Russia to enter the world system of economy. The development of the Arctic icebreaker and transport fleets is directly connected with our recent decision about support to domestic shipbuilding. And here, it's important to turn the Arctic into the field for the perfection of mechanisms stipulated by this decision. And we can produce all the necessary here in Russia: medium-capacity tankers and gas-carriers of increased ice class, tugboats and salvage ships. And this list is far from complete».

The Northern Sea Route remains in successful use and continues living and working. The icebreaker fleet has overcome all the survival difficulties and, in the long run, it is the icebreaker fleet that should be honoured for the opening, exploration and development of the Northern Sea Route, and nowadays for the maintaining its transport potential, too.

In the historical retrospective view, the first icebreaker in the world, the linear ship "Ermak", that was designed according to the project of the our outstanding Russian admiral S.O. Makarov and that came into service on the 19th of February 1899 (with the capacity of about 10000 horsepower) began a new era in navigation - the epoch of the fleet that is able of active navigation in ice. The fortune of the icebreaker turned out to be uneasy, glorious and tragic. Till 1963 it had participated in a variety of naval operations connected with piloting vessels in the ice of the Baltic, took part in marine expeditions and assisted the fleet in the period of active exploration and development of Sevmorput transport routes (see details in L.S. Seliverstov, ««Ermak, the firstling of the icebreaker fleet of Russia» and V.I. Karepova, «Captains of the 'Ermak'», «Murmansk Collection on the Arctic», 2002).

NameYear of productionCapacity at shafts, megawattCountry-ProducerOperator
Atomic icebreakers    
Arktika197449,0USSRMSCO
Sibir*197849,0USSRMSCO
Rossia*198549,0USSRMSCO
Sovetsky Soyuz198949,0USSRMSCO
Yamal199249,0USSRMSCO
Taymyr198932,5USSR, Finland 
Vaygach199032,5USSR, FinlandMSCO
Diesel electric icebreakers    
Ermak197426,5FinlandMAP (S.Petersberg)
Kapitan Sorokin197626,5FinlandMAP (S.Petersberg)
Admiral Makarov197526,5FinlandFar-East Shipping Company
Krasin197626,5FinlandFar-East Shipping Company
Kapitan Nikolaev197816,2FinlandMSCO
Kapitan Dranitsyn198016,2FinlandMSCO
Kapitan Khlebnikov198116,2FinlandFar-East Shipping Company


*Note: Temporally removed from operation for maintenance works in order to increase its lifetime.
1By now, some foreign icebreakers (USA, Canada, Germany, Sweden) have visited the North Pole 8 times, not without the help of our experienced icebreakers. All this testifies to a rising interest of developed countries in the study and development of natural resources and transport potentials of the Arctic.


Picture 1. Increase in navigation time in the western part of the Russian Arctic in the years 1920-2004 depending on the capacity of the icebreaker.
Pic 1
At the beginning of the XX century, in the period of a rapid development of her industry, Russia was in need of more and more icebreakers for the extension of navigation time in the freezing ports of the Baltic and the White Sea. 1908 new ice-breaking steamers, the "Taymyr" and the "Vaygach", were built at the Nevsky shipyard in Petersberg. 1912, at the same shipyard, the icebreaker «Pyotr Veliky» with the capacity of 4000 horsepower was born. During the First World War Russia buys some icebreakers abroad - the icebreakers "llya Muro-mets" and "Dobrynya Nikitich" with the capacity of 6500 horsepower each, the icebreakers «Alexander Nevsky» and «Mikula Selyaninovich» with the capacities of 8000 horsepower - and orders the icebreaker «Svyatogor» with the capacity of 10000 horsepower. There appear ice vessels: the ice-cutter «Fyo-dor Litke», the steamers "Sadko», «Malygin», «Vladimir Rusanov», «Alexandr Sibiryakov» and «Georgy Sedov».

 

Before the year 1920 the icebreakers went on Arctic expeditions mostly. The most remarkable one was here a through navigation of the ice-breaking steamers "Taymyr" and "Vaygach" in the years 1913-1915 along the Northern Sea Route with one winter spent in the ice of the Arctic. The steamers' commanders were B.A. Vilnitsky and P.A. Novopashenny. A new land (now called Severnaya Zemlya) was discovered exactly at that time.

Regular commercial navigation in the Russian Arctic dates back to the 8th of August 1920 when 19 ships of the 1st Kara (Khlebnaya) expedition left Arkhangelsk for Obskaya Guba (Gulf of Ob) to get Siberian bread and to deliver it to the starving parts of the Arkhangelsk province. The vessels were old, unfit for ice navigation, but they returned to Arkhangelsk already on the 4th of October with the cargo of bread, meat, fats and furs. Stacked by the ice in the Kara Sea, the steamer «Solovey Budimirovich» was rescued by the ice-cutter «Fyodor Litke» and the icebreaker "Svyatogor" re-bought from the Englishmen by that time (later «Krasin»). The second similar Kara expedition took place in 1921. It went with the participation of the icebreaker «Lenin» («Alexandr Nevsky» before, later «Vladimir lyich»), as well as of the ice-breaking steamers «Vladimir Rusanov», «Georgy Sedov», «Alexandr Sibiryakov», «Malygin». Among weak vessels which took part in the expedition one ship was broken apart by the ice, two vessels sank because of holes in the hulls.

Even the first experience of ice piloting that went on in the conditions of summer ice thawing while there were only minor length ice bridges in the Kara Sea testified unambiguously to the necessity of creating transports with strong hulls and icebreakers with increased power. During the Soviet time, in the years 1922-1932, the country had got 10 icebreakers (the capacity varied from 3000 to 10000 horsepower) with the total capacity 51000 horsepower.

In the years 1937-1941 the USSR built 4 more icebreakers of «I. Stalin» type with the capacity of 10000 horsepower each. In the years 1954-1956 the icebreaker fleet got three icebreakers built in Finland - «Kapitan Belousov», «Kapitan Melekhov» and «Kapitan Voronin» with the capacity of 10500 horsepower. In the year 1959 the USSR put the first in the world atomic ice-breaker into operation -the icebreaker «Lenin» with the capacity of 44000 horsepower. In the years 1960-1969 5 more icebreakers, with 26000 horsepower capacity, built in Finland, were put into operation («Moskva», «Leningrad», «Kiev», «Murmansk», «Vladivostok»). All of the enumerated icebreakers have already finished their work and were put from the acting fleet by different times. Two of them are preserved for the next generations and turned into museums. They are the icebreaker «Krasin» and the nuclear icebreaker «Lenin».

The enumerated periods of the quantitative increase in the number of icebreakers and the periods of enlarging their capacity have determined the basic stages in the exploration and development of new navigation ways and in the increasing of navigation terms along the Northern Sea Route (picture 1).
The capacity of the pre-war icebreakers was really not strong enough to fight the ice in more severe conditions than the easiest navigation conditions of the summer-autumn period (July, August, September), when the Arctic seas are fully free of ice or ice-free to the maximum. Thus in 1932 the ice-breaking steamer «Alexandr Sibiryakov» made the first through navigation from the west to the east along the whole Sevmorput during one summer navigation floating practically in the ice-free water.

But the second 1933 attempt of a through navigation along the Northern Sea Route made by the steamer «Cheluskin» failed. With the beginning of winter the ship turned out not to be able to go through the ice lock and enter the ice-free water of the Chuckchee Sea, and on the 13th of February 1934 the ship was broken by ice and sank. During the 1935 navigation along the lines of the Northern Sea Route only 4 steamers went through by the participation of the icebreakers «Fyodor Litke», «Ermak», «Krasin», «Lenin». The navigation of the year 1937 was extremely unsuccessful: more than 20 steamers and icebreakers had to winter in the Laptev Sea. The vessels were rescued in summer 1938, but the ice-breaking steamer «Georgy Sedov» was rescued only after 3 years of a forced drifting in the ice.

A great necessity in the exploration and development of natural resources of the Arctic, mostly of the Norilsk and Chaun-Chukotski industrial regions, determined further increase in icebreaker fleet capacities. The icebreakers of the "Kapitan Belousov" type which were put into operation in the 50-s allowed to stretch the navigation time in the western part of the Arctic up to 3-4 months. The icebreakers of the «Lenin» and «Moskva» types "increased" the navigation time along the whole length of the Northern Sea Route up to 4-5 months during the years 1960-1977 in the western part of the Arctic, to the ports Dudinka and Igarka - mainly up to 7 months (June-December inclusively). But that was not enough. To secure the rhythmic work of the Norilsk industrial region and the development of the Yamal oil-and-gas deposits was necessary to achieve a six-months navigation.
The icebreakers capable to fight the winter ice in the Kara Sea and in the Ob-Enisei region were the nuclear icebreakers of the «Arktika»2 type with a incredible, as it seemed at those times, capacity of 75000* horsepower. 4 years after putting the nuclear icebreaker «Arktika» into operation, in the year 1978, and through the assistance of the nuclear icebreaker "Sibir" that started operating that year with the help of shallow icebreakers of "Kapitan Sorokin" type specially designed for the work on the limited depth parts of the river Enisei, the all-the-round navigation in the direction of Dudinka became possible. In the next years the icebreakers of the «Kapitan Sorokin» type coped with winter piloting in the fast ice of the Enisei with difficulty. The shallow atomic icebreakers "Taymyr" and "Vaygach" with the capacities of 44000 horsepower were built in the years 1989-1990 to change them. And only after the new icebreakers had been put into operation, Arctic voyages to Dudinka became securely all-the-round ones.

The realization of the state programme on the achievement of larger navigation time in the western region of the Northern Sea Route till it became all-the-year-round took the time of approximately 4-5 five-year plans and cost much money. According to the estimation of the then-specialists of the «Soyuz-morniiproject», the work included the production of a series of atomic and diesel-electrical icebreakers, the vessels of strengthened ice class («Dmitry Donskoy» type vessels, SA-15, «Pioneer of Moscow», «Samotlor», atomic lighter-carrier «Sevmorput» and other ships), reconstruction of ports and port points, modernization and strengthening of the material and technical basis of service structures.

From the end of the 40-s the growth rates of traffic volumes along the Northern Sea Route had always mirrored the state of economy in the country -in the favourable periods the volumes of the transported cargos rose more intensively, in the years of stagnation the growth rates decreased considerably. During the mentioned period till the year 1988 there wasn't any decline in traffic volumes in the history of the Sevmorput development. From year to year the volumes of maritime transportation increased steadily by different grow rates. The peak of the volume growth was reached in 1987 and made 6,6 Million tons.

Traffic volumes reached Million tons after the atomic icebreaker "Lenin" and the "Moskva" type icebreakers were put into operation. Then the icebreakers "Arktika" and "Sibir" started working, too, which helped the traffic volumes to surpass the mark of 6 Million tons (1985). The «record» Northern Sea Route navigation was observed in 1987.16 linear icebreakers the total capacity of which was more than 500000 horsepower, and 331 transports that plied 1306 voyages took part in it. Comparing these data with the tiny achievements of the 30-s, we should note that after the total capacity of the icebreaker fleet had been increased 10 times, the traffic volumes rose more than 100 times. The success in the development of the Northern Sea Route and Arctic navigation from 1960 till 1990 can be compared only with space exploration.

In the years of the maximum traffic activity on the Northern Sea Route the linear icebreaker fleet of an unbelievable capacity - about 650000 horsepower - was concentrated in the Murmansk Shipping Company. That was the capacity that surpassed the total world icebreaker fleet taken together at those times. The total capacity of icebreakers in the Far-East Shipping Company made approximately 250000 horsepower during the best years. Of course, the share of maritime operations of the Far-East Shipping Company was smaller and the volume of operations in the eastern region of the Northern Sea Route was smaller respectively (somewhere within 25-30% of the total flows of goods).

The recession of the transport activity on the Northern Sea Route, which followed after 1987 was slow first - 6,3 Million tons in the year 1988,5,8 Million tons in the year 1989. But in the years from 1990 till 1998 the recession rates were big and the volume of cargo transportation fell from 5,5 Million tons down to 1,5 Million tons. 1993 the border of 3 Million tons was crossed. That was the line below which the exploitation of the expensive icebreaker fleet becomes unprofitable. The time period from 1999 till 2003 is characterized by some stabilization of cargo transportation volumes that reached the level of 1,6-1,7 Million tons. The next years, 2004-2006, are characterized by the growth of cargo volumes up to the level of 2 Million tons. The main freight flow is processed in the western region of the Northern Sea Route. Approximately 1,2 Million tons are cargos from the Norilsk industrial area. The volumes of cargo transported in the eastern part of the Northern Sea Route make only 50-100 thousand tons. The observed situation in sea cargo transportation along the Northern Sea Route is caused by only one thing - the economic crisis in Russia.

In the context of this publication, a great contribution of the ОАО "MSCO" should be especially underlined as it preserved and maintained the nuclear and diesel electric icebreakers given to it in the year 1933 for asset management in the working condition during the most difficult period of crisis (see table 1). It contributed much to an uninterrupted fulfilment of plan targets and pilotage applications, assisting the vessels of various users along the whole length of Sevmorput. Its contribution to the management of the fleet movements and to the navigation safety control stipulated by the "Navigation Regulations along the Northern Sea Route Lines" on the assigned area of responsibility - the western part of Sevmorput - is really great. What is not less important is that the shipping company preserved the unique personnel potential, the personnel which is capable of exploiting powerful atomic and diesel electrical icebreakers effectively, which will make the future revival of the Northern Sea Route possible.

It is appropriate to quote the President V.V. Putin again. On the 5th of April 2000 on board the icebreaker "Rossia" in Murmansk he said:
«The base for a stable civil and naval navigation in the North is the icebreaker fleet of course. Its uniqueness lies in the combination of the most progressive high shipbuilding technologies with the achievements of atomic scientists, the combination that works in the extreme climatic conditions. Practically there isn't any similar fleet, any similar experience of its operation and any similar masters of this really rare job anywhere in the world».
At all times our seafarers knew that Arctic exploration is a hard job, but they had always been ready to do that for their Homeland. And they are ready to do it today, too.

20n the 8th of August 1977 the atomic icebreaker «Arktika» reached the North Pole in its active navigation for the first time in the history of the world. Within the further exploitation of the «Arktika» type icebreakers, it was noticed that by such level of capacity the icebreakers can secure a safety all-the-year-round navigation in the ice of the Kara and Laptev Seas. The all-the-year-round navigation in the East-Siberian and Chuckchee Seas is possible for them only during the years of light ice conditions. During an average year it is possible only from June till January.

 


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