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Icebreaker escorting vessels along the Northern Sea Route. (Source: Sovcomflot)

Icebreaker escorting vessels along the Northern Sea Route. Source: Sovcomflot

Russia Eases Icebreaker Escort Rules to Promote Year-Round Arctic Shipping

Malte Humpert
Total Views: 1994
February 16, 2024

In an effort to pave the way for year-round transport of liquefied natural gas (LNG) on the Northern Sea Route, the Russian government eased the requirements for icebreaker escorts. 

The rule change applies to double-acting vessels with ice-class Arc7 and Arc8, such as those carrying LNG for Novatek’s Yamal LNG and Arctic LNG 2 projects. 

Previously Arc7 LNG carriers were permitted to navigate independently, i.e. without icebreaker escort, in severe ice conditions only between July 1 and November 30. 

The amended Rules of Navigation in the Waters of the Northern Sea Route, expand this period by three months to include January, June, and December.

“Double-acting vessels with ice class Arc7 and Arc8 are permitted to travel independently in the period from January 1 to January 31 and from June 1 to December 31 in any ice conditions,” the updated rules state

The rule change may correspond with Russian efforts to begin year-round deliveries of LNG to Asia. According to Novatek and government officials, routine winter deliveries will begin during 2024.

“Indeed, the rule change may well be related to the introduction of the next generation Arc7s that are designed to navigate independently year-round through the NSR eastern sector; with icebreaker support as and when needed,” explains Ben Seligman, a project specialist for Arctic oil and gas development.

Novatek’s Arc7 vessels have completed hundreds of voyages on the NSR since 2017, including a dozen or so winter transits to Asia. Operational experience from these experimental voyages has increased confidence in the Arc7’s capabilities allowing for an expansion of the window of independent navigation.

“Of course, it’s to promote the NSR during the winter in an autonomous way from 2024 going forward,” concurs Hervé Baudu, Arctic shipping expert and Chief Professor of Maritime Education at the French Maritime Academy (ENSM). He also points out that the change likely reflects the impact of global warming with ice conditions, on average, becoming less severe. 

“There are also more icebreakers available for escorts, which means they can be dispatched more quickly, and the Arc7s can take more risks, as they will be picked up if the conditions are harsh,” elaborates Baudu.

This exact scenario is currently playing out on the NSR. Two Polar Class 3 heavy load vessels Audax and Pugnax joined up with icebreaker Arktika in the Chukchi Sea, however, severe conditions in the East Siberian Sea required the dispatching of an additional icebreaker, 50 Let Pobedy, to join the convoy. 

Sentinel-1 SAR imagery from February 14, 2024 showing the lead or channel in the sea ice created by the convoy to the north of the New Siberian Islands. (Source: Copernicus Sentinel data, 2024)
Sentinel-1 SAR imagery from February 14, 2024 showing the lead or channel in the sea ice created by the convoy to the north of the New Siberian Islands. (Source: Copernicus Sentinel data, 2024)

The latest NSR rule change continues the progression of expanding the navigation season on the route. For example, Arc7 vessels were barred from independent navigation during winter even in medium ice conditions in the 2013 iteration of the rules of navigation.

Future guidelines may further relax requirements to accommodate e.g. Arc6 ice-class vessels. These changes would pertain to Rosneft’s fleet of Arc6 oil tankers currently under construction for service with the upcoming Vostok Oil project.

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