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Connecting Corridors in Southern Waters

(by Willy Østreng)


The Northern Maritime Corridor

On the Atlantic side of the Arctic Ocean there are  two corridors: The Northern Maritime Corridor, connecting the NEP to Europe and North America and the “Fram Corridor” connecting the TPP to the North Atlantic and ultimately to the NMC and the Arctic Bridge. On the Pacific side, the three Arctic corridors connect with one joint southern corridor: The “Northern Pacific Corridor” going through the Bering Strait connecting to the west coast of North America and North East Asia and ultimately to the Great Circle Route. These corridors are two-ways corridors made up by re-supply and destination Arctic shipping, and possibly in the long term, transit shipping.

The Northern Maritime Corridor (NMC) stretches from the Whites Sea in the north, with partners in Murmansk, Nenets and Archangel regions, to multiple ports in the North Sea1 . This corridor - also called the “new motorway of the sea” was approved as an inter-regional project by the European Union (EU) in 2002, involving partners in 22 regions in 8 countries. The NMC is by western analysts regarded as a most important linkage to North West Russia, connecting “…the NMC to the ….Northern Sea Route which connects North West Russia to the Pacific Ocean (see chapter 2)1 . From a natural and geographical point of view using the NMC, NEP and NPC from London to Yokohama it is seldom necessary to negotiate more than 400 nautical miles of difficult ice conditions, i.e. 5-6 % of the total freight distance (see chapter 7). Well over half of the route goes through ice-free waters and about 40 % through navigable ice. The bulk of the route runs through international waters not legally disputed by anyone. Thus, in a geopolitical perspective the physical and political challenges of these interconnecting corridors apply only to a small part of the total distance in the Arctic proper (see chapter 2).

In our definition of the NEP, the NMC overlaps with the latter in the White and Barents Seas. In this definition, the NMC overlaps with the traditional geographical conception of the NEP, making the Barents Sea a definitional venue of four overlapping routes: the NEP, the NMC, the Kara Sea Route and the functional extension of the NSR (see Figure 1.10). Marine transport of Russian oil through the NMC has been going on for some years, but increased dramatically in 2002. The oil comes from production sites in Western Siberia. As the existing pipeline from Siberia to southern Russia was oversubscribed at the time, oil was instead shipped by train to the White Sea, transferred to tankers and shipped on to the European market through the NMC. Oil production in Russia’s Arctic deposits is expected to increase - some suggest a production level by 2021 of 55-65 million tonnes2 . Crude oil, bunker oil and refined products are shipped out on small ice strengthened tankers from different ports in the White Sea to Murmansk were it is transferred to large tankers for export. The transport capacity was originally about 5,4 million tons a year, but is expected to triple and quadruple over a short period of time.

Also the trans-Atlantic branch of the NMC, which connects the NEP to the east coast of North America has been activated for transport as the first load was delivered to the U.S. east coast in February 2008. Since transport costs from Murmansk to North America are comparable to those from the Middle East, this trade is expected to increase rapidly3 . In this perspective, Siberia is linked to Washington via two or three Arctic routes and the transoceanic blue water branch of the NMC.

Figure 1.10: The NMC – NEP Connection


Source: Ocean Futures (2006)

The Northern Pacific Corridor

Due to Iceland’s geographical location en route to the North American east coast, Icelandic authorities and shipping companies have plans to service the trans-oceanic branch of the NMC by offering deep ocean ports, repair facilities, reloading of cargo from small to large tankers etc. The idea is to establish a transhipment port at Isafjordur in northwest Iceland. Previously, the harbours at Reykjavik and Reydarfjordur in East Iceland have been suggested4 . The government points out that the deep fjords in west Iceland, like Hvalfjordur offer good natural conditions for ports for big ships and even “better than other options in the northern part of the Atlantic5 . The Icelandic government do not only suggest Iceland to be a transhipment country for the east coast of North America, but also for Northern Europe.

The “Northern Pacific Corridor” on the Pacific has not yet been established or for that matter got an official name. For simplicity and for the purpose of this study we call it the Northern Pacific Corridor (NPC), which starts out in the Bering Strait, overlapping with the functional definition of the NSR on the Pacific.

The Bering Strait is a narrow international strait that connects the Arctic Ocean to the North Pacific Ocean. It is the geographical venue of the NWP, NEP, TPP and NPC – a choke point through which all vessels have to pass to exit or access the Arctic Ocean on the Pacific (see Figure 1.11). At the straits narrowest point, the continents of North America and Asia are just 90 km apart. The biggest depth is 60 meters. In the midst of the strait are two small islands belonging respectively to the USA and Russia – Little and Big Diomede. Seasonally, dynamic sea-conditions are found in this natural bottleneck by some labelled the “Navigators nightmare” clogged as it is with first year sea ice more than 4 feet thick. Multi- year sea ice is known to move through the strait at speeds approaching 27 nautical miles per day6 .  In the land territory surrounding the strait there are three US ports: Nome, Kotzebue and the Red Dog mine harbour. Also on the Russian side the ports are located to the south of the strait. These are: Providenija, Anadyr and Egvekinot. The water depth in all these ports is less than 10 meter6 .  The closest U.S. harbour with deep water is Dutch Harbour at the Aleutians in the Southern Bering Sea. On the Russian side, the nearest deep water port is Providenija. Thus, the regional shortage of suitable and effective infrastructure is striking and in need of cost-intensive improvements (see Figure 1.11). Current shipping activity in the area is based on community re-supply and destination Arctic traffic.

When the Russian Navy undertook and planned the Great Northern Expedition to the Arctic in 1733-1743 the objective was to explore the American (Alaskan) coast and to reconnoitre a sea route from Kamchatka to Japan. Although the expedition resulted in 62 maps and charts of these uncharted waters6 , a sea route was never formally set up.  Unlike the NMC, the NPC is still only an expanse of water stretching from the Bering Strait southwards through the North Pacific ending up nowhere and everywhere. Or put differently: The NPC has not yet formally been established as an official link between ports in the Arctic and ports in southern waters by any countries or groups of countries. One important reason for this is that “Because of Russia’s European identity, analysts often seems to overlook the Russian Far East (RFE) as an actor in the region when analysing North East Asia. Maps of the East Asia list the names and major cities of all the other states in the region, but often let the Russian Far East remain a dark unnamed mass of territory in the north, often cutting the map north of Japan….There are a host of structural and cultural obstacles to overcome before RFE and its Asian neighbours can in fact reach a level of mutual trust high enough to ensure dynamic cooperative development in the region7 .

Figure 1.11:  Transportation through the Bering Strait and the NPC


Source: AMSA (2009)

Thus, regional cooperation in the northern areas of the RFE is an issue on the absolute fringe of most of the political relations and perceptions in Northeast Asia. “For all the stumbling blocks and hindrances… to be overcome many mutual perceptions and not least realities have to change both in Russia and in Japan, China and the Koreas8  Granberg also suggested to deliver oil from the Russian Arctic to the west coast of the United Sates  in exchange of American  food supplies to the Russian Far East through a trans-oceanic sea lane across the Pacific, connecting with the NSR. In this scheme, the NSR would be used to distribute large portions of US supplies to the Arctic regions through connecting rivers. This suggestion has not yet materialized in interstate politics. However, in 2007 the Canadian firm Broe/Omni Trax announced its intention to participate with Russian companies in the international “Arctic Bridge-project” for large-scale transport of transit cargoes via the NSR in the west-east direction through the Bering Strait. This company owns and operates the Canadian port of Churchill and is the largest private railway company in the United States (see above)2 .  

According to Japanese experts, “..progress in international specialization and economic globalization has accelerated and broadened the interrelationship between the two regions (RFE and NEA) both socially and economically. It is widely known that oil and natural gas development of the coast of Sakhalin Island provides a wide range of multiplier effects in these areas. And in this way, the globalized face of the economy and industry will play an important role in the sustainable development of the Russian Far East and East Asia for many years to come. . (T)he abundant natural resources in the extreme north area of the Russian Far East will draw (the).. attention of  the international market (see chapter 39 ).

South Korea being the fourth largest oil importing country and the tenth largest oil consuming country in the world is dependent on oil deliveries from the Middle East. From a logistical point of view, the security of marine transportation routes for oil between Northeast Asia and the Middle East has been seriously threatened by piracy and conflicts among Asian countries. Due to piracy, the cost of insurance for ships travelling via the Gulf of Aden towards the Suez Canal increased more than tenfold between September 2008 and March 200910 . In response to the threat to these southern supply routes, “it is necessary to exploit various other transportation routes and modes for natural resources….. In addition to the exploitation of transportation routes, naval cooperation among the countries in East Asia should be reinforced to promote maritime safety (see chapter 2)11  For this reason, Russia “ is strategically important to Korea as a new alternative energy source in accordance with Korea’s strategy of diversifying the countries it importsfrom11 .  For these reasons, cooperative measures should be taken into account in order to decrease and eventually remove problems among Asian countries11 .

Chinese researchers claim that the opening of the Arctic routes “will advance the development of China’s north-east region and eastern coastal area, (and)… it is of importance to East-Asian cooperation as well10 . As has been pointed out “As non-Arctic states, China, Japan, North Korea and South Korea are all in the same boat “when it comes to the prospects of an ice-free Arctic. Each of these countries “..stands to benefit enormously from shorter commercial shipping routes and possible access to new fishing grounds and other natural resources. A unified Arctic strategy would be of their mutual interest. Finding ways to jointly use an ice-free Arctic has the potential to create a genuine win-win situation for both China and Japan, the two East-Asian powers which in so many other areas find it difficult to find commonground10 . 

Thus, the countries bordering on Northeast Pacific may in due time formally establish a Northern Pacific Corridor connecting the Northeast Asian countries to the NEP (NSR),NWP and TPP with a trans-oceanic branch to the North American west coast. In the meantime, and while waiting for regional cooperation to establish such a corridor, these waters are freely available to increasing international shipping as high seas servicing both transit and destination sailings along all the transportation corridors of the Arctic Ocean.

Figure 1.12: The Great Circle Route

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_circle

The “Fram Corridor”

If and when this route is formally established as a cooperative project between regional states and provinces, the trans-oceanic branch will interact with the Great Circle Route (GCR) that connects the west coast of North America (including Alaskan waters) to ports in the South Korea, Japan and the Russian Federation through the Panama Canal. This route passes through the Aleutian Islands. In 2004, 2 759 vessels passed through the GCR, which was more than all of the shipping traffic in the entire circumpolar Arctic6 . For this branch of the NPC to be made into a fully integrated route, the Great Circle Route will have to be extended northward from the Aleutians through the Bering Sea and the Bering Strait (see Figure 1.12).

The Fram Corridor (FC) has not been formally established and/or baptised with a name of public recognition. It is simply a label provided for the purpose of this study, borrowing its name from the Fram Strait which separate Svalbard and Greenland in the north with a minimum of 540 km and in the south with a maximum of 900 km. The Molly deep provides the deepest point not only in the Fram Strait but also in the whole of the Arctic Ocean with a depth of some 5607 m. In the centre of the Strait, depths in general are around 2000 m, with coastal depths ranging from 100 to 500m12 . The Fram corridor in our definition includes the Fram Strait and the Greenland Sea connecting in the south with the transoceanic branch of the NMC north and/or south of Iceland.

Ninety percent of all sea ice that leaves the Arctic Ocean goes through the Fram Strait at high speeds - in between 10 to 25 cm per second12 . Previously, this strait was the outlet of thick multi-year ice extending down to the Denmark Strait between Jan Mayen, Iceland and Greenland. Thus, parts of the Fram Corridor is what whalers and sealers for centuries have called the West Ice (Vestisen) outside the east coast of Greenland – a hostile sea ice area of many tragic ship losses. Today, the Fram Strait is mostly the outlet of young and first-year ice with a thickness of up to 1,5 meters. Only on rare occasions have multi-year ice been recorded going through the strait in recent years. This is due to the rise of the air temperature in the area of 2-3 degrees C in the course of the last decades13 . Thus, climate change has made the FC more accessible to surface shipping than before.

Both Denmark and Norway have established 200 nm zones in the Svalbard/Greenland area. Those zones overlapped with some 150 000 sq km. In 2006, the two countries reached agreement to delimit the disputed area on the basis of the median line principle (see chapter 6)14 . The shelf area outside of 200 nm north of the Fram Strait has not yet been delimited between the two countries. Here a solution is pending on the evaluations of the scientific data submitted by the two states to the UN Commission on the Delimitation of the Outer Continental Shelf. Politically and legally, the area attracts no interstate conflicts, and the likelihood is that the shelf delimitations will follow the recommendations of the UN Commission on the Delimitation of the Outer Continental Shelf.

Unlike the Northern Pacific Corridor, the Fram Corridor is not being used on a regular basis for shipping purposes, neither destination Arctic or transit. It is known that it has been used by a small number of submarines exiting or accessing the Arctic Ocean15 , and as an exit area for the Canadian icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent and the U.S. Polar Sea in August 2004 (see above). In addition, a few research ships and even drifting ice stations16  have been operating in the area for research purposes, but the volume of this traffic has been limited and is fairly recent. As a connecting corridor of active seasonal use, the Fram Corridor at best belong to the future, but ice and navigation conditions are in steady improvements for more active shipping.


  •  1. Solheim, A., O. Hauge and E. Leknes (2004), Northern Maritime Corridor. Interreg III B at Sea” in Louis von Flotow (ed): Innovative City and Business Regions, Structural Changes in Europe 3, Lou Hagbart Publisher, Bollschweil, 2004.
  •  2. Peresypkin, Yakovlev (2008), p. 4
  •  3. Focus North 4-2007, p. 2, and Østreng (2005), pp. 86-90
  •  4. Jakobsson, Thor (2004), The Northern Sea Route – Interest in Iceland”, talk at Arctic Marine Transport Workshop, Scott Polar research Institute, 28-30 September 2004
  •  5. North Meets North (2006), p. 39
  •  6. AMSA (2008), Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment, Report Draft, 14 November 2008
  •  7. Simonsen (1996), pp. 4-5
  •  8. For a thorough and insightful discussion of these aspects see Simonsen (1992)
  •  9. Otsuka (2006), p. 74
  •  10. Jacobson, Linda (2010), China prepares for an ice-free Arctic, SIPRI Insights on Peace and Security, No. 2010/2, March 2010
  •  11. Yeong-Seok Ha (2006), Transportation System of natural Resources in Korea in Hiromitzu Kitagawa (ed): New Era in Far East Russia & Asia, OPRF, Tokyo, 2006
  •  12. Lysaker, D. I. (2007), ”Framstredet” e-mail from Statens Kart verk, geodesidivisjonen, Hønefoss, 9. June 2009 to Willy Østreng
  •  13. WWW.npweb.npolar.no
  •  14. Overenskomst mellom Kongeriket Norges regjering på den ene siden og Kongeriket Danmarks regjering sammen med Grønlands landsstyre på den annen side om avgrensningen av kontinentalsokkelen og fiskerisonene i området mellom Grønland og Svalbard av 20.
  •  15. Østreng, W. (1979), Polhavet i internasjonal politikk, Mimeographed, Studie AA:H012, FNI, Lysaker 1979
  •  16. Althoff (2007)
  •  17. Granberg, A. (1992), The Northern Sea Route and the Policy of the New Russia, in Internatinal Challenges, vol. 12, no. 1, 1992

Willy Østreng, 2010, Corridors in Southern Waters, CHNL.© 

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