January 28, 2012

Warmer Temps, Increased Sea Access Key To Russian Maritime Resurgence

Rising temperatures and melting ice could prove to be an economic boon to Russia, thanks to the revitalization of a Soviet-era maritime shipping route along the coast of Siberia, according to Reuters reports on Friday.

That path is known as the Northern Sea Route and to links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through a route along the nation's Arctic coast from Murmansk on the Barents Sea to the Bering Strait and the Far East.

Previously known as the Northeast Passage, the route, which typically lies in the midst of Arctic waters that are ice-free for only weeks each year, but changing climate conditions could result in the path becoming more frequently usable.

"Russia has long hauled cargoes of oil, iron ore and fish products across its sprawling northern coast, but until 2009 no foreign-flagged merchant vessel had plied the trade link," Albina Kovalyova and Alissa de Carbonnel of the wire service wrote.

"When fast-rising temperatures melted Arctic ice cover to its second-smallest recorded area in 2011, a record 34 barges -- more than double 2010 and including supertankers -- piloted the icy seas," they added.

According to Reuters, the path, which is 4,000 nautical miles shorter than southern routes, was open for a record-setting 141 days last year thanks to warm summer temperatures. Kovalyova and de Carbonnel report that those conditions resulted in merchants having almost a month longer than average to utilize what Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has referred to as a faster, pirate-free rival to the Suez Canal.

"Russia has staked future growth on mining the Arctic's vast energy resources, and reviving a Soviet-era shipping route along its Siberia coast is an integral part of that plan," Kovalyova and de Carbonnel wrote on Friday. "It could also promise economic revival for Russia's ports and shipyards, struggling since their Soviet-era glory days."

Earlier this month, it was a Russian tanker that helped deliver fuel supplies to Nome, Alaska, after snowstorms and ice prevented access to the town, according to the Associated Press (AP).

It marked the first time that petroleum-based products had been delivered to a town in the western part of the state by sea during the winter, the AP said, and without the efforts of the Russian crew, Nome likely would have only had enough fuel to last until April -- well before the next scheduled delivery barge would have arrived.

The country's newfound maritime has manifested itself in other ways as well. Reuters reported that, in the White Sea port town of Severodvinsk, state contract led to a 62% increase in output in 2009 and an additional 8% last year.

Furthermore, one Russian vessel -- a Suezmax-class tanker containing more than 100,000 tons of gas condensate -- became the largest ship ever to navigate the passage this year, while a second vessel completed the journey from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific in a record eight days.

Putin said that he had "no doubt" that such successes were "just the beginning," Kovalyova and de Carbonnel wrote, noting that the Russian prime minister and other government officials are planning to spend $1.2 billion over the next several years "on its ice-class fleet" and will "build three atomic-powered and six diesel-electric icebreakers by 2020."