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The Trans Polar Passage 2        

The Trans Polar Passage

(by Willy Østreng)


Trans Polar routes outside of national jurisdiction in the Arctic Ocean cover all waters that are part of the High Seas and where the freedom of navigation applies. This definition includes two sections of water expanses: The first is the Central Arctic Basin which is 4,7 million sq. km in area. Here, coastal states have no jurisdiction at all apart from the flag state jurisdiction they exercise over their own ships and crews.

The second section includes all ocean areas beyond the territorial seas of 12 nautical miles and within the outer limits of the 200 nautical miles Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). This belt is 188 nautical miles in extension measured outwards from the outer limits of the territorial sea. Here, coastal state rights and obligations mix with the rights and obligations of all other states. In this belt the coastal states have sovereign rights over certain issue areas, among them over the exploration and exploitation, conservation and management of  natural resources – living and non-living – on and in the sea bed and in the water column above.

The coastal states also exercise rights to adopt and enforce non-discriminatory laws and regulations for the prevention, reduction and control of marine pollution from vessels in those areas that are ice covered within the limits of the exclusive economic zone. In the ice-covered areas of these stretches, Article 234 of UNCLOS III provides coastal states with some additional powers to apply pollution regulations.

At the same time, Article 87 of the same Convention claims these waters to be part of the High Sea guaranteeing the freedom of navigation to coastal and land-locked countries alike. Thus, this belt is where coastal state jurisdiction meets with the freedoms of the High Seas and where all parties shall have due regard to the rights and duties of other States and where all are obligated to act in a manner compatible with the spirit and letter of the Convention (see chapter 6). The biggest chunk of Arctic water is that designated the high seas, i.e. both the Central Basin and 188 nautical miles belt of the EEZs. The direct distance across the Central Arctic Ocean from the Bering Strait across the North Pole to the Fram Strait is 2100 nautical miles. All other transit distances within the Arctic Basin are longer. The state of sea ice at any one time will decide if the distance advantage of using the TPP instead of the alternatives will attract the interest of international shipping.

Contrary to popular belief the ice cover of the Central Arctic Ocean is not a static unbroken surface. It is constantly in motion, breaking into pieces, and building up pressure ridges above and below the surface where floes grind together. Because of the cleavage of the sea-ice canopy, leads and areas of open water (called polynyas) and thin ice (called skylights) are present all year round. As early as in the 1960s (before global warming of the present was recorded) these open water areas constituted from 5 to 8 percent of the total area of the Arctic Ocean during the winter season, and approximately 15 percent during summer1 . By way of example, the open space available to shipping in the Central Arctic Ocean during the summer season was about twice the total size of the Caspian Sea (approx.700 000 sq. km) and about the size of the Caspian in winter (approx. 235 000 – 376 000 sq. km)2 . The distribution and frequency of polynyas and skylights is random, but they appear even in the vicinity of and at the very North Pole throughout the year3 . Some of the leads and skylights in the vicinity of the Pole were assessed to be nearly half a mile in diameter4 .

The sea ice varies in shapes, thicknesses, ages and hardness, presenting different challenges to navigation. These are some of the more frequent5 : 

·       New Ice: Recently formed ice composed of ice crystals that are only weakly frozen together (if at all) and have a definite form only while they are afloat.

  • Nilas: A thin elastic crust of ice (up to 10 cm in thickness), easily bending on waves and swell and under pressure growing in a pattern of interlocking "fingers" (finger rafting).
  • Young Ice: Sea ice in the transition stage between nilas and first-year ice and 10-30 cm in thickness.
  • First-Year Ice: Sea ice of not more than one winter's growth, developing from young ice having a thickness of 30 cm or more.
  • Old Ice/multi-year ice: Sea ice that has survived at least one summer's melt. Its topographic features generally are smoother than first-year ice and can be a few metres thick. Old ice is also much harder than first year ice, and can be much more damaging to ships, if hit at a normal cruise speed.
  • Ice Massifs: are manifested as extensive accumulations of close or very close ice that are found in the same region every summer6 .
  • Drift ice: is ice that floats on the surface of the water in cold regions, as opposed to fast ice, which is attached "fastened" to a shore. Usually drift ice is carried along by winds and sea currents, hence its name, "drift ice7 ".
  • Pack ice: When the drift ice is driven together into a large single mass, it is called pack ice. Wind and currents can pile up ice to form ridges three to four meters high, creating obstacles difficult for powerful icebreakers to penetrate. Typically areas of pack ice are identified by high percentage of surface coverage by ice: e.g., 80-100%.7
  • Ice floe: is a large piece of drift ice that might range from tens of meters to several kilometers in diameter. Wider chunks of ice are called ice fields7 .

Although, reliable information about the proportion and distribution of different ice thicknesses is difficult to obtain, a Swedish study dating back to the 1970s estimated the area of the Arctic Ocean covered with ice thinner than 4-5 feet to be 30 percent or more8 .Forty years later, global warming has increased the portion of navigable waters in the central part of the Arctic.

Expert opinion is that the present thawing is long-term and that the ice-edge will steadily migrate northward along with a further thinning and weakening of sea ice. Over the last 30 years, sea ice thickness in the Central Arctic Ocean has decreased by 42 %, a decrease of 1.3 meters – from 3.1 to 1.8 meters9 , with an accompanying reduction of some 73 % in the frequency of deep pressure ridges10 . As a consequence, the influx of multi-year ice from the Central Arctic Ocean to the coastal areas has decreased by 14 percent from 1978 to 1998. This decrease greatly benefits economic activities in coastal waters (see chapter 4).

On the basis of these and other scientific observations, model experiments suggest a further decrease in sea ice thickness of some 30 %, and an ice volume decrease between 15 and 40% by 205011 . If this trend continues, one postulate is that summertime disappearance of the ice cap is possible in the course of this century and that significant areas of the Arctic Ocean may become permanently free of sea ice in summer12 . One of the models simulates an ice-free Arctic Ocean in summer by 2050 (see the discussion of the concept of ice-free above). This scenario implies that the physical occurrence of multi-year ice can possibly disappear from these waters in the future improving further the conditions of economic activities in the Central Arctic Basin. This is not to say that the Arctic Ocean will become an ice-free ocean in winter. As concluded in the AMSA study: “Even after the first ice-free summer is recorded, there will almost certainly be subsequent years when all of the ice does not melt in summer but survives to become “old” ice the following year. It is “.. generally agreed that the Arctic waters will continue to freeze over in winter13 .

Russian scientists go one step further maintaining that the likelihood of an ice-free Arctic Ocean in the future is small even if the air temperature continues to increase. Their doubt is founded on the argument that the sustainability of the composition and functioning of the structure of the upper layers of the Arctic Ocean will control and reduce the melting process14 . Let us illustrate the point: In mid-September 2007, the Arctic Ocean reached its absolute sea ice minimum so far covering only 4.1 million square km. One year later – in September 2008 - the extent of sea ice was about 1 million square km bigger than at the same time the year before, covering 5,2 million square kilometre15 . In March 2008 the ice extent rebounded rapidly to a winter maximum that was actually higher than in the previous four years. On these grounds, sea ice-experts expect strong natural variability events in the future, causing both decreases and increases of the arctic sea-ice cover on seasonal and decadal time scales16 .  Thus, different sources assume sea ice to be a lasting characteristic of the Arctic Ocean, although still very different from the conditions 30 years back.

Trans Polar routes can serve both intra-Arctic, destination Arctic and transit purposes. The two former implies that vessels can use international waters for parts of their voyage, entering the NEP and NWP from the north to unload their cargo. On such occasions, Trans Polar routes get affected by the controversial legal regimes of the NSR and NWP. For transit voyages between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, this can be avoided by using the high sea sections of the Arctic Ocean, accessing or exiting through the Fram and Bering Straits (see chapter 2).

Intra-Arctic, Destination-Arctic and Transit Routes in the High Seas of the Arctic Ocean

The first surface ship ever to reach the North Pole was the Soviet nuclear icebreaker Arktika on 17 August 1977. Arktika departed from Murmansk on 9 August and sailed eastbound through the Vilkitskii Strait to the ice edge of the Laptev Sea, then turned northward and sailed  along longitude 125 degrees East, reaching the North Pole 8 days later. The ship arrived back in Murmansk on 23 August after having sailed 3 852 nautical miles in 14 days with an average speed of 11.5 knots. Parts of the voyage took place in heavy ice. This trip unleashed several more voyages from several more countries. Between 1977 and 2008, ship access to the North Pole in summer has been attained to all regions of the Arctic Basin. Data shows that 77 voyages have been made to the Geographic North Pole by icebreakers from Russia (65), Sweden (5). USA (3), Germany (2), Canada (1) and Norway (1). Of all the visits, 85% has been undertaken by Soviet/Russian icebreakers. Nineteen of these trips were in support of scientific exploration and the remaining 58 were for the entertainment of tourists.

Eight icebreakers reached the Pole in summer 2004, and during the four consecutive summer seasons, 33 ships reached the North Pole mainly for tourist and scientific purposes. Of the 76 icebreaker trips that have been to the Pole in summer, the earliest date of arrival has been 2 July 2007 and the latest 12 September 2005. This indicates that the navigation season has been restricted to about 10 weeks for highly capable icebreaking ships. The only voyage of the 77 not conducted in summer was that of the Soviet nuclear icebreaker Sibir, which supported scientific operations during the period from 8 May to 19 June 1987, reaching the North Pole on 25 May17 . As has been stated, “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 trip is the most demanding icebreaker operation to date13 .

Eleven of the 77 voyages were conducted by diesel powered icebreakers, the rest had nuclear propulsion18 . The fact that conventionally-powered icebreakers have conducted successful operations to high-latitudes in all regions of the Central Arctic Ocean implies that such voyages are not entirely dependent on nuclear propulsion (see chapters 4 and 5). New icebreaking technology may enhance the capabilities of diesel powered ships to operate in the waters around the North Pole.

No commercial ship has ever conducted a voyage across the Central Arctic Ocean. The seven trans-Arctic voyages – all taking place in summer – have been conducted by icebreakers, nuclear as well as diesel powered. The first transect of the Arctic Ocean was undertaken by the Canadian Icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent and the Polar Sea of the United States in July-August 200419 . Both ships started their voyage from the Bering Strait and sailed northward to the North Pole and exited through the Fram Strait between Greenland and Svalbard (see chapter 2). One year later the Swedish icebreaker, Oden and the American icebreaker Healy also made a successful trans-Arctic passage (see Figure 1.1).13  It is easy to subscribe to the preliminary AMSA study conclusion: “One of the historic polar achievements of the 20th and early 21th century has been the successful operation of icebreakers at the North Pole and across the Central Arctic ocean.

The capabilities demonstrated by these voyages are interesting in light of the thinning and diminishing of sea ice in the Central Arctic Ocean. This combination invites for “..an extraordinary future with implications for ice navigation and Arctic ship constructions13 . At the same time one should bear in mind that there will always be an ice-covered Arctic Ocean in winter, but the ice will be thinner and contain a smaller fraction of multi-year ice (see chapter 4)13 . In other words: sea ice conditions are changing in all sections of the Arctic Ocean on a year round basis, if not in all respects improving (see above). In light of inter-seasonal sea ice variability, there is still a need for vessels with modern icebreaking capabilities to operate effectively for commercial or other purposes in all regions of the Arctic Ocean. But, the dwindling sea ice cover has given some extra impetus and nourishment to the old idea that commercial ships shall be able to operate in ice-infested waters without icebreaker escort or convoy.

This ability was actually demonstrated as early as in 1932, when the icebreaking steamship Alexander Sibiryakov sailed from the west to the east of the NSR without icebreaking assistance during one navigation season. Today, the idea is coming to fruition and materializing on realistic technological terms. As discussed above, Norilsk Nickel already operates two such ships on the Kara Sea Route, and four more of the same class are under construction in Germany. Thus, Norilsk Nickel will in a short term have a fleet of six operational icebreaking carriers, “all highly capable of operating independently through the winter season to serve the port of Dudinka13 . In 2006, these ships began shuttling between Dudinka and Murmansk along the Kara Sea Route independent of icebreaker assistance13 . The experiences gained and the technology developed for these operations may in the long-term perspective be applied to the Central Arctic Ocean for route developments. 

Actually, regular shipping operations in the high seas of the Arctic Ocean are up against multiple challenges of a non-technological nature. Among the more obvious is the lack of governmental or commercial salvage response to support shipping in far-away waters, There is also a lack of communications and there are no routinely produced ice information products at navigation scale for the high seas beyond coastal state waters. Although, all Arctic states provide marine weather information for their coastal waters, none has as yet been assigned the responsibility to do so for the high seas regions - although an initiative seems to be underway in this respect. When considering possibilities for the Trans Polar Passage there are few adequate ports in United States (US) or Russian waters near the Bering Strait, which is a crucial chokepoint for any trans-Arctic shipping and for vessels transiting the region. The closest U.S. harbour with deeper water is Dutch Harbour in the southern Bering Sea. On the Russian side, the nearest and largest deepwater port is Provideniya located in the north-eastern part of Chukotka (see chapter 5)13 .


  •  1. Molloy, A. E. (1969), The Arctic Ocean and the Marine Science in the North Polar Region, Oceans, vol.1, no. 2, 1969
  •  2. Østreng, W. (1982), Sovjet i Nordlige Farvann. Atomstrategien, Nordflåten og norsk sikkerhet, Gyldendal Norsk Forlag, Oslo, 1982.
  •  3. Lyon (1963)
  •  4. Dyson, J. L. (1963), The World of Ice, London, 1963
  •  5. Definitions derived from: http://ice.ec.gc.ca/WsvPageDsp.cfm?ID=181&Lang=eng
  •  6. Johannessen, O.M, V.Y Alexandrov, I.Y. Frolov, S. Sandven, L. Pettersson, L.P. Bobylev, K. Kloster, V.G. Smirnov, Y.U. Mironov and N.G. Babich (2007): Remote Sensing of Sea Ice in the Northern Sea Route. Studies and Applications, Springer Verlag/Pra
  •  7. Description taken from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drift_ice
  •  8. Samuelson, U. (1970). The Arctic and its Role in World Affairs” unpublished manuscript, Royal Swedish Navy, London 1970
  •  9. Weller, G. E. (2000), Climate Change and its Impact on the Arctic Environment” in Henry P. Huntington (ed): Impacts of Changes in Sea Ice and Other Environmental Parameters in the Arctic, Report of the Marine Mammal Commission Workshop, Girdwood, Ala
  •  10. Wadhams, P. (2004), Arctic Sea Ice Thickness Changes, talk at Arctic Marine Transport Workshop, Scott Polar research Institute, 28-30 September 2004
  •  11. Naval Operations in an Ice-free Arctic (2001) p.3
  •  12. Ibid.
  •  13. AMSA (2008), Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment, Report Draft, 14 November 2008
  •  14. Ugryumov, A. og V. Korovin (2005): På isflak mot nordpolen, Forlaget Nord, Tromsø, 2005.
  •  15. Doyle, A. (2008), Arctic ice bigger in 2007, but thawing long-term”, 30 July 2008: blogs.reuters.com/environment
  •  16. Johannessen, O. M. (2008), Arctic Sea Ice Mirrors Increasing CO2 on Decadal Time Scale. in Atmospheric and Oceanic Science Letters, 2008, vol. 1, no. 1
  •  17. AMSA (2009), Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment, Report, PAME, Arctic Council, Terragraphica, Anchorage, April 2009
  •  18. Arctic Marine Transport Workshop (2004), 28-30 September 2004, Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge University, Cambridge
  •  19. Brigham, L (1995), Arctic Rendevouz in U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, January, 1995

Willy Østreng, 2010, The Trans Polar Passage 2, CHNL.©

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