Tanker embarks on first ever mid-winter voyage on Northern Sea Route

LNG carrier Christophe de Margerie is on its way from China to Sabetta, while nuclear-powered icebreaker is in the East Siberian Sea. The two vessels might ultimately sail together across the Northern Sea Route. (Map compilation by The Independent Barents Observer)
The Christophe de Margerie is approaching the Bering Strait on a historic voyage across the icy waters of the Russian Arctic shipping route.

Never before has a commercial ship crossed the Northern Sea Route in February.

The 299-metre-long carrier operated by Sovcomflot was on Feb. 3 located off the coast of Kamchatka. The powerful ship has a northbound course and is due to arrive in Sabetta, the LNG terminal in Yamal, on Feb. 17.

The tanker set out from the Chinese port of Yangkou on Jan. 27, data from ship traffic service MarineTraffic shows.

At the same time, nuclear-powered icebreaker 50 Let Pobedy was on early Tuesday sailing eastwards towards the East Siberian Sea. The two ships might ultimately meet near the Bering Strait, and the tanker subsequently escorted westwards through the thick sea-ice.

Map of sea ice conditions in the Arctic as of Feb. 2, 2021. The green colour indicates the area of seasonal one-year-old ice (30-200cm in thickness), purple is the new ice (10-30 cm), light blue is the ice-free area and brown marks the multiyear ice area. (http://www.aari.ru/)

The whole Northern Sea Route is now covered by ice. The straits between the mainland and archipelagos Severnaya Zemlya and New Siberian Islands are covered by thick fast ice, while the remaining part of the area has one-year old sea-ice that is between 30-200 centimetres thick.

There is no multi-year ice in the area.

Air temperatures in the region can at this time of year drop to below minus 40C°.

It is not the first record-breaking voyage of the Christophe de Margerie. The ice-breaking tanker was the first LNG carrier that crossed the route. In May 2020, Sovcomflot sent the carrier across the route in a record-early voyage, more than a month earlier than the previous record.

In January this year, the tanker took part in another historic voyage, where two commercial carriers crossed each others’ paths in one of the most icy parts of the Arctic sea route in January.

Tanker Christophe de Margerie in Sabetta. (Atle Staalesen/The Independent Barents Observer)

The operations are part of a series on experimental shipments on the remote and icy shipping route. In July last year, Sergey Frank, board chairman of shipping company Sovcomflot, made clear that ice-class tankers will be sailing on the Northern Sea Route in January and February.

The experiments are conducted in cooperation with natural gas producer Novatek and nuclear power company Rosatom, Frank said. It is part of a bid to show that the route can be used also in winter time. According to ship operators, the NSR can soon be used for sailing up to 10 months of the year.

The Christophe de Margerie is part of a fleet of 15 vessels that serve the Yamal LNG project. They can carry up to 70,000 tons of liquified nature gas, and all have ice class Arc7, that enables them to autonomously break through up to 2,1 meters of sea ice.

The fleet of LNG carriers are instrumental in the major spike in shipping in the Russian Arctic. In 2020, more than 32 million tons of goods was shipped on the Northern Sea Route, up from 2019 when the volume amounted to 31,5 million tons.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Canadian Coast Guard wraps up 2020 Arctic operations season, Radio Canada International

China: US sanctions against Chinese shipping company could hurt Russia’s LNG exports, The Independent Barents Observer

Finland: Finland’s aging icebreaker fleet needs modernization, Yle News

Iceland: New guideline launched for Arctic-specific risk assessment in shipping, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Norwegian Coast Guard sails high-latitude Arctic voyage to Beaufort Sea, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Containers next for Northern Sea Route, new terminal one step closer to realization in Murmansk, The Independent Barents Observer

United States: US Arctic : Trump advances icebreaker plan, Alaska Public Media

Atle Staalesen, The Independent Barents Observer

For more news from the Barents region visit The Independent Barents Observer.

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