Icebreaker Navigation in the Central Arctic Ocean1977-2008

(from AMSA Report 2009)


One of the historic polar achievements at the end of the 20th century and early in the 21st century has been the successful operation of icebreakers at the North Pole and across the central Arctic Ocean.

Between 1977 and 2008 access in summer has been attained by capable icebreaking ships to all regions of the Arctic basin. Seventy-seven voyages have been made to the Geographic North Pole by the icebreakers of Russia (65), Sweden (five), USA (three), Germany (two), Canada (one) and Norway (one).

Nineteen of the 77 voyages have been in support of scientific exploration and the remaining 58 have been for marine tourism, all but one of the tourism voyages conducted aboard nuclear icebreakers.

Of the 76 icebreaker voyages that have been to the pole in summer, the earliest date of arrival has been July 2, 2007 and the latest September 12, 2005, a short 10-week navigation season for highly capable icebreaking ships.

The Soviet nuclear icebreaker Arktika, during a celebrated voyage, was the first surface ship to attain the North Pole on August 17, 1977. Arktika departed from Murmansk on August 9 and sailed eastbound initially north of Novaya Zemlya and through Vilkitski Strait to the ice edge in the Laptev Sea. The ship sailed northward to the pole along longitude 125 degrees east and reached the pole on August 17. Arktika arrived back in Murmansk on August 23 having sailed 3,852 nautical miles in 14 days at a speed of 11.5 knots.

The only voyage to the pole not to be conducted in summer was that of the Soviet nuclear icebreaker Sibir, which supported scientific operations during May 8 to June 19, 1987, reaching the North Pole on May 25. Sibir navigated in near-maximum thickness of Arctic sea ice while removing the personnel from Soviet North Pole Drift Station 27 and establishing a new scientific drift station (number 29) in the northern Laptev Sea. This successful voyage in the central Arctic Ocean could be considered the most demanding icebreaker operation to date.

No commercial ship has ever conducted a voyage across the central Arctic Ocean. However, seven trans-Arctic voyages, all in summer, have been accomplished by icebreakers in the central Arctic Ocean through the North Pole.

A voyage across the central Arctic Ocean with tourists was conducted by the Soviet nuclear icebreaker Sovetskiy Soyuz in August 1991. The Arctic Ocean Section 1994 Expedition, conducted by Canada’s Louis S. St-Laurent and the Polar Sea of the United States, was the first scientific transect of the Arctic Ocean accomplished by surface ship. During July and August 1994 both ships sailed from the Bering Strait to the North Pole and to an exit between Greenland and Svalbard through Fram Strait. The expedition made extensive use of real-time satellite imagery (received aboard Polar Sea) for strategic navigation and scientific planning.

Two trans-Arctic voyages with tourists through the North Pole were accomplished by the Russian nuclear icebreaker Yamal in summer 1996. In summer 2005, Sweden’s icebreaker, the Oden, and the American icebreaker Healy also made trans-Arctic passages in a second and highly successful scientific expedition by surface ships across the central Arctic Ocean.

Although not a trans-Arctic voyage, the operation of a three-ship scientific expedition for Arctic seabed drilling during late summer 2004, mentioned earlier, is noteworthy. Included in the AMSA 2004 database, the expedition was composed of Russia’s nuclear icebreaker Sovetskiy Soyuz and Sweden’s Oden, both used extensively for ice management, and the Norwegian-flag icebreaker Vidar Viking outfitted for drilling. One of the key accomplishments was the return of a 400-meter sediment core from the seabed that is being used for scientific studies of past Arctic climates.

A review of these historic polar voyages indicates that marine access in summer throughout the Arctic Ocean has been achieved by the 21st century by highly capable icebreakers. The nuclear icebreakers of the Soviet Union and later the Russian Federation have clearly pioneered independent ship operations in the central Arctic Ocean, especially on voyages to the North Pole in summer. Conventionally powered icebreakers have also operated successfully on trans-Arctic voyages in summer, as well as on scientific expeditions to high-latitudes in all regions of the Arctic Ocean. Any planning for future navigation in the central Arctic Ocean would do well to understand the ship performance, environmental conditions and ice navigation capabilities of these successful operations in the ice-covered central Arctic Ocean.


    Arctic Council, 2009, Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA), Arctic Council.©