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The Russian Maritime Arctic and Northern Sea Route

(from AMSA Report 2009)


The physical environment of the northern coast of Eurasia - the Russian maritime Arctic - presents unique challenges to the mariner and to modern ship technology and systems. Shallow waters generally characterize the length of the coastline from the Norwegian-Russian border in the west (in the Barents Sea) to the Bering Strait. The average depths of the East Siberian and Chukchi seas are 58 meters and 88 meters respectively, making the entire coastal region in the east quite shallow for all marine operations. The average depth of the Laptev Sea is 578 meters (its northern limit extends into the Arctic Ocean basin); however, 66 percent of its area along the coast is in depths of 100 meters or less. The Kara Sea has an average depth of 90 meters and the Barents Sea is relatively shallow along the coast (10-100 meters) in the southeastern region and slopes to depths of 200-300 meters to the northwest. From the early years of exploration in the 17th century to today’s offshore development and use of shipping routes, the consistently shallow bathymetry of this broad Arctic coast has been a key facet in all maritime affairs.

The Northern Sea Route is defined in Russian law as the set of Arctic marine routes between Kara Gate in the west and the Bering Strait. A number of narrow straits represent a significant constraint to navigation along the NSR. Yugorskiy Shar Strait is located along the south coast of Vaygach Island and is the southernmost entrance from the Barents to Kara seas (21 nautical miles long, 13-30 meters deep). Kara Gate is the main shipping strait between the Barents and Kara seas (18 nautical miles long, minimum depth of 21 meters) and shipping uses an established traffic separation scheme. Vilkitskiy Strait separates Severnaya Zemlya from the northernmost extremity of the Eurasian land mass, Cape Chelyuskin. This is a key NSR strait between the Kara and Laptev seas (60 nautical mile length, 100-200 meter depths), but it is ice-covered except for a short period in some summer seasons. Shokalskiy Strait is located in Severnaya Zemlya north of Vilkitskiy Strait and is a second possible shipping route between the Kara and Laptev seas (80 nautical miles long, minimum depth of 37 meters).

In the eastern reaches of the NSR, Dmitry Laptev Strait, oriented east-west, is the southernmost passage between the New Siberian Islands and the Russian mainland, linking the Laptev and East Siberian seas. This strait is 63 nautical miles long and has depths of 12-15 meters; however, the eastern approach has only depths of 10 meters or less, restricting traffic to ships with less than a 6.7 meter draft. Sannikov Strait is a second passage through the New Siberian Islands linking the Laptev and East Siberian seas (160 nautical miles long, minimum depths of 13 meters). From a navigation perspective, the low surrounding New Siberian Islands make visual and radar observations difficult to obtain, especially during long periods of reduced visibility. Long Strait separates Wrangel Island from the Russian mainland and links the East Siberian and Chukchi seas (a 120-nautical mile southern route along the coast with 20 meter minimum depths; a 160-nautical mile northern route with 33 meter minimum depths).

Several marine route distances are notable: from Murmansk to the Bering Strait is 3,074 nautical miles; and the Northern Sea Route from Kara Gate to the Bering Strait is 2,551 nautical miles. The Dudinka to Murmansk marine route that is maintained yearround is

1,343 nautical miles, while it is approximately 500 nautical miles between the offshore region of the Pechora Sea (site of new oil terminals) in the southeast corner of the Barents Sea and

Murmansk. Compared with the Canadian Arctic, the Russian maritime Arctic has many more viable ports located along the length of the NSR. Primary NSR ports from west to east include: Amderma, Dikson, Yamburg (Ob’ Gulf), Dudinka (north Yenisei River), Igarka (south Yenisei River), Khatanga (Khatanga River on the Laptev Sea), Tiksi (Tiksi Gulf near the Lena River), Zeleny Mys (Kolyma River) and Pevek.


  •  1. Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment Report 2009

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