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The Northeast Passage and Northern Sea Route

(by Willy Østreng)


Two approaches are often applied to determine the co-ordinates of the NSR: An official definition as found in Russian laws and regulations, and an unofficial Russian functional definition based on a mixture of organizational, operational and geopolitical criteria. The former restricts the route geographically to Arctic waters claimed to be national and under the exclusive national jurisdiction of the Russian Federation, whilst the latter extends it geographically to include additional expanses of international waters in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

The Official Russian Definition of the NSR

According to political perception and legal regulations in Russia1 , the NSR stretches from Novaya Zemlya in the west (meridian 168 degrees 58 minutes and 37 seconds west) to the Bering Strait in the east (parallel 66 degree north). The establishment of the NSR as a separate part of the NEP was decided by the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR on 17 December 1932, which marks the beginning of the NSR as an administered, legal entity under full Soviet jurisdiction and control2 . It comprises the main part of the NEP which, with the addition of the waters of the Barents Sea, connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans along the entire length of the northern coast of Eurasia.

Figure 1.2: The Northern Sea Route



Source: Løvås and Brude, INSROP GIS, 1999. 

The NSR is a series of different sailing lanes, and ice conditions at any one time and place will decide the sailing course to be set. The route covers some 2,200 to 2,900 nautical miles of ice-infested waters (see Figure 1.2). It consists of a series of marginal seas – the Kara Sea, the Laptev Sea, the East Siberian Sea and the Chukchi Sea – which are linked by some 58 straits running through three archipelagos – the Novaya Zemlja, the Severnaya Zemlja and the New Siberian Islands.

At times, surface vessels operating in convoys are forced to proceed due north of the large island masses due to the accumulation of pack ice in the straits3 , which may be clogged with sea ice. Ice conditions are in general more difficult along the eastern extremity of the route than in the west. In the Laptev, East Siberian and south-western Chukchi seas five ice massifs - large areas of close and very close ice – are identified (see Figure 1.3 and chapter 4). These massifs often block the entrances to important navigational straits along the route, among them the Long Strait and Vilkitskii Strait. Although, some of these ice massifs are relatively stable, they on rare occasions disappear at the end of the melt season, but reoccur again in winter4 .

The eastern sector is also the part of the route with the most shallow shelf areas.  The East Siberian Sea has an average depth of 58 meters and the Chukchi Sea of 88 meters. The shallowness of the shelf is the most pronounced in the straits, with minimum depths of 8 meters (See Figure 1.6 and chapter 5)5 . This affects the size; volume and draft of ships (see chapter 5).

The ocean areas west of the Yamal Peninsula are fortunate in having a slightly deeper shelf and lighter ice conditions in average than the eastern sector. This is partly due to the circumstance that the Kara Sea is to the north surrounded by several archipelagos which usually prevent heavy multi-year ice from the Central Arctic Ocean from penetrating into these waters. Multi-year ice, which is extremely hard and consequently a serious obstacle to navigation (see below), has survived the summer melt season and is typically 1 to 5 meter thick6 . The eastern sector lacks this kind of land protection and is more open to the influx of multi-year ice from the Central Arctic Basin. However, even in the East ice conditions are changing due to global warming. Here, new extreme minima of summer ice extent have been established repeatedly ever since 19797 . In six of the last nine years, the Chukchi Sea was ice free with periods extending from 1 week to as much as 2, 5 months. In contrast, there was always ice over the Chukchi Sea shelf in all of the previous 20 years (1979-98)8 .

Figure 1.3:  The Ice Massifs along the NSR 


Source: INSROP Working Paper no.108 - 1998 

In cases when the convoys along the NSR enter the high sea, prominent Russian ocean law experts claim that the navigation lanes used are national and under full Russian control and jurisdiction: “The integral nature of the Northern Sea Route as a transport route is not affected by the fact that individual portions of it, at one time or another, may pass outside the aforesaid boundaries (i.e. boundaries of internal waters, territorial waters and economic zone) where the USSR exercises its sovereign rights or sovereignty in full (i.e. it may pass into the high seas)9 . Thus, as long as part of the voyage includes waters under Russian jurisdiction, the Russian Federation has defined the NSR to include sea-lanes running beyond its own economic zone in high latitudes, even close to the North Pole.

In principle, this implies that all conceivable lanes south of the North Pole, and even across the Pole itself, might be part of the NSR as long as the voyage passes through North Russian coastal waters. In line with this reasoning, Russian scientists, employed by the Federation, claim that “Voyages along the NSR are carried out along coastal, marine, high-latitudinal and near-pole routes. Coastal routes are the most traditional.”…., whereas “the fourth route, which is 700 miles shorter than the coastal route, passes the large circle across the geographical North Pole (Figure 1.4)4 . In this interpretation, the NSR overlaps with the TPP, covering huge expanses of the high seas that according to the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea of 1982 (UNCLOS III) is open to all nations and where ships are subject to flag state jurisdiction only (see chapter 6).

Figure 1.4: The Extension of the NSR to Cover the NEP and High Sea Waters of the Arctic Ocean 


Source: From Mulherin (1996) 

The NSR is part of an interconnected rectangular transportation system for the Russian North. The legs of the rectangle consists of, in addition to the passage itself, the big Siberian rivers,  and the east-west running railways in the south connecting with the rivers thousands of miles from the coast. Ocean going vessels sail from the port of Igarka which is 670 km. south of estuary of Yenisei and to Yakutsk which is 1160 km south of Igarka. Both the rivers of Ob, Yenisei, Lena and Kolyma are navigable to the Trans-Siberian railway which is 2270 km. south of Siberian coast. The river Lena connects with the Baikal-Amur railway10 . As has been stated, “The NSR and the river system is the primary mode of transportation in this remote part of the world apart from airborne transportation. Nearly all human activity in the Russian Arctic is in some way dependent on the NSR11 . In this perspective and interpretation the NSR extends northward and southward from the coast, servicing huge ocean and land territories, covering thousands of kilometres from the North Pole to the railways of the south. 

Unofficial Functional Definitions of the NSR

The official Russian definition operates with fixed geographical endpoints in the east-west direction – the Bering Strait in the east and the Novaya Zemlya in the west. Also functional definitions have geographical endpoint, but there are requirements as to what should characterize these ends. A sea route, in the functional tradition, is a trading link between towns and cities – between ports with loading, service and reception facilities, transport networks, sizeable populations etc.. Neither the Bering Strait nor Novaya Zemlja meets any of these criteria. These are desolate, environmentally hostile places with no needs, abilities or capabilities to take part in trading – not even small-scale trading. On this backdrop, it has been argued that the NSR should be defined functionally as connecting sizable ports on the Pacific side of the Russian Far East with those in the European part of Russia, for instance Murmansk11 . As a secluded part of the NEP, the NSR has no meaning in large- scale trading other than securing Russia gateway-control over the main part of the NEP. As has been pointed out: “If Vladivostok is the functional Russian eastern end point of the NSR, then the neighbouring countries of Japan, North Korea, South Korea and China can easily become functional end points as well11 .

Figure 1.5:  The Barents Region 


Source: Barents Interactive Geography Viewer, www.metainfo.se/gitbarents/barents.html(external link) 

This functional reasoning has aptly been summarized: “In compliance with the definition of the term”Arctic”, adopted by the Russian marine fleet, the ports of Murmansk, Kandalaksha, Naryan-Mar, as well as the ports of the Far East, south of the Bering Strait, are not related to the Arctic, but of course this cannot lessen their role in the Arctic transport supply. The ports of the Barents and White Seas also play a significant role in the economic linkages between Russia and West Europe12 . The same authors take full consequences of this point by discussing the role of the Barents Euro-Arctic Region (BEAR), which lies west of Novaya Zemlya in the economic development of the regions along the NSR (Figure 1.5)12 .

In line with this analysis, it is interesting to note that Russian researchers use maps depicting the four principal transit routes of the NSR – the coastal, marine, high-latitudinal and near-pole routes – as starting out in Murmansk going through the Bering Strait to ports in the North Pacific (see Figure 1.4)13 . Given the fact that the BEAR, comprising the eleven northernmost counties of Russia, Norway, Sweden and Finland, host a Working Group for the NSR, the southern- most boundary of the route can be claimed to coincide with the Norwegian BEAR counties of Nordland on the Atlantic14 . In functional terms, the NSR stretches from the ice free portions of the North Pacific to Norway’s Nordland County on the Atlantic. In this definition it is more appropriate and even accurate to use the term the Northeast Passage rather than the geographically confined term of the Northern Sea Route. To make the confusion complete, Russian researchers recently claimed that the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR “ .. named the Northeast Passage the ‘Northern Sea Route’.. to make the NSR a functioning, practicable shipping route from the White Sea to the Bering Strait2 . Here the NSR is made the same as the NEP, placing the White Sea, which is west of Novaya Zemlja, the endpoint of both the NSR and the NEP.

The Northeast Passage complies with different versions of the functional definition of the Northern Sea Route as long as this corridor connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in a continuous stretch. A minimum definition of the NEP is that it is made up of all the marginal seas of the Eurasian Arctic, i.e. the Chukchi, the East Siberian, the Laptev, the Kara and the Barents Seas. As such, the NSR makes up approximately 90 % of the NEP.

Formally, Russia opened the NSR to international shipping on 1 July 1991 on the premise that the users would comply with coastal state regulations. Since the archipelagos of the NSR are legislated to become internal waters, Russia claims the same sovereignty over these parts of the route as over her land territory (see chapter 6). This stand provides Russian authorities with an unlimited regulatory power which is challenged both by the United States and the European Union (EU) (see chapters 2 and 6). Their position are that the NSR is an international strait open to international shipping on the condition of transit passage as defined in Law of the Sea Convention of 1982 (UNCLOS III)15 . If , as indicated in the official definition of the NSR, Russia extends her jurisdiction also to the high seas of the Arctic Ocean, diplomatic protests will be heard from Washington, Brussels and capitals of smaller states (see chapter 2).  In the spirit of UNCLOS III, the high-latitudinal and near-polar routes claimed to be part of the NSR-regime may be interpreted as “creeping jurisdiction” and a blatant violation of the High-Seas regime (see chapter 6).

Intra-Arctic, Destination-Arctic and Transit Routes of the Northern Sea Route

Immediately following the 1917 October revolution, the Soviet authorities authorized hydrographical surveys, primarily in the Kara Sea, for the purpose of improving navigation there. Geographical observatories were constructed on Novaya Zemlja, Franz Josef Land, Severnaya Zemlya and the New Siberian Islands. In 1930, plans for developing navigation possibilities in the Kara Sea were expanded drastically, and the entire NEP was to be opened to transport and transit sailings16 . To attain this goal, research was stepped up. By 1937, Glavsevmorput – the Directorate of the Northern Sea Route – formally established in 1932, had spent an equivalent of 1 billion US dollars on activities north of 60 degrees N. latitude and had some 40 000 persons on its pay role17 .  From 1937 until 1956, the Soviet Union equipped scientific expeditions to a total of 524 different destinations in the Arctic. These research efforts did not pass unnoticed abroad.  During the 1960s and 1970s it was conventional wisdom in western research circles that the Soviet “knowledge of the region (was) much more extensive than that of the sum of the other nations bordering the basin18 .

After World War II, Soviet research efforts were followed up by an ambitious program for constructing a large fleet of powerful icebreakers. At its peak in the 1980s, this fleet counted 38 vessels operating along the route and southward on the big Siberian Rivers.  Six of these icebreakers were nuclear powered of which the biggest exerted 75 000 horsepower. In addition, a fleet of close to 700 ice-strengthen vessels were built to operate along the route on year-round basis10 . These efforts notwithstanding, on occasions convoys of ships had to over winter in the NSR before they were freed by icebreakers in late spring the following year.  Accidents happened and freighters were damaged and lost. According to Russian sources, in the period 1954-1990 the total number of ice damages to ships traversing the NSR averaged 800, i.e. 22 a year.  The accidents were distributed as follows: the Kara Sea-49% (here the intensity of navigation is the highest, see below), the Laptev Sea: 20%, the East Siberian Sea: 2%, the Chukchi Sea: 14% (here the density of ships is the lowest and ice conditions the worst)19 . Many ship captains experienced the truth that “..being at sea is risky, being at sea in ice is twice as risky, and being at sea in a convoy with an icebreaker present is three times the risk20 . In the period 1945-70,  the sailing season of the eastern part of the NSR was restricted to about 3 months, whereas ice conditions in the western part allowed for an extended sailings seasons of up to 4,5 months.

The NSR never got the intended significance as a transit route between the two world oceans. Transit traffic reached its maximum cargo volume in 1993 with 208,600 tonnes brought in by 30 voyages of multi-purpose ships of the Norilsk type (SA-15)2 . Mostly, the NSR served regional developmental purposes. In the 1980s more than 400 Soviet ships were active in cargo shipments supporting several destinations at the estuaries of the great rivers of Siberia. Raw materials were transport out of the region and necessities of life were brought in. In addition some 100 scientific, commercial and military outposts were supplied this way. The areas attracting intra-Arctic and destination Arctic shipping on a regular and long-lasting basis were, and still are: the Barents Sea, Dickson, Cape Chelyuskin, Tiksi, Kolyma river, Pevek, Cape Schmidt and the Bering Strait (see Figure 1,6)13 . Cargo shipping along the route to these ports increased steadily for some years. In 1987, it peaked at 6.58 million tons - the heyday of Soviet Arctic marine traffic in the Arctic21 . Since then, and in particular following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, there has been a steep drop in the volume of cargo. In 1998 it dropped to an all-time minimum of 1.5 million tons, increasing to 2,13 million tons in 2007, which equals the volume transported in the late 1960s. Current indications are that this negative trend may continue for the immediate future14 . But, there are exceptions to the rule for certain sections of the NSR.

Since 1978 and up to the present, the Russian Icebreaker fleet has succeeded in keeping the stretch from Murmansk to Dudinka on the banks of the Yenisei River (231 nautical miles from the river’s mouth) open for sailings 12 months a year. This means that more than 1000 nautical miles, or some 30 percent of the NEP between Murmansk and the Bering Strait, is now kept open for shipping all year round. This stretch is what throughout history has been labelled the Kara Sea Route. The driving force behind this achievement was the prospects of increased revenues stemming from year-round shipments of nickel from Igarka. In 1980 this transportation provided revenues. The nickel industry then got an extra income of 71 million roubles, whereas the extra costs of the shipping activity amounted to 23 million roubles22 . In January 1988, the Ministry of the Fleet was instructed to run the NSR on a commercial basis, signalling that the state subsidies for the route would stop and the management of the route should be secured by the income it generated. 

Today, modern ice strengthened oil and gas tankers ply the Kara Sea Route along with the Nickel industry. A clearly identifiable intra-Arctic route has been established across the politically defined geographical divide between the NSR and the NEP. In 2006, regional transportation of hydrocarbons within the Barents and White Seas alone amounted to 8,5 million tons23 , which is four times more than the volume of cargo transported through the rest of the NEP/NSR. Profitability is one decisive key to increasing shipping. History provides a source of evidence. The most massive, sustained activity in terms of Arctic shipping was that of whaling. Between 1610-1915, a little more than 39 000 voyages were undertaken to the Arctic in pursuit of the bowhead whales. This activity took place in ice-infested waters in four main areas: the Svalbard/Greenland Sea areas, Davis Strait and Baffin Bay, Hudson Bay and the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort Seas24 . The prospects of profit will be the driving force also in the future.

Russian authorities are planning to expand the volume of cargo transported along the NSR to in between 7,8 million tonnes and 11,4 million tonnes in 201525 . Of this total, oil products are expected to make up 4,6 to 5,9 million tons, i.e. close to 60% of the total cargo flow25 . Independent research estimates indicate an increase in transit cargo by 2020 of about 5-6 million tonnes per year in the eastern direction and 2-3 million tonnes in the western direction26 . The dominant shipping activity is and will be destination Arctic in character, involving among others indigenous communities.

Figure 1.6: Ports along the NSR 


Source: Ragner FNI Report 13/2000 

Within the northern territorial frontiers of the Russian North there are 26 different indigenous groups or nationalities. All together, they number close to 180 000 individuals. The effects of increasing shipping on Arctic communities – coastal as well as inland – are assumed to be many - positive as well as negative27 . If, however, due consideration to indigenous livelihood, culture and social life is not an integral part of the economic planning process, these peoples may be victimized by the increasing developmental pressure exerted on the region from the South28 . The problem relating to the Arctic transportation corridors in general is that there “.. is insufficient information to identify with any precision the likely effects of marine shipping for most Arctic coastal communities. No current database exists for indigenous use in local Arctic waterways that could be used to develop multiple use management measures and potential mitigation strategies24 . Until such a database is established the interests of indigenous peoples find protection only in various documents of Human Rights, among them the ILO Convention Document no. 169 and in soft law institutions like the Arctic Council (see chapter 6). The protection offered by these instruments is totally dependent on the ability and willingness of the Executive to put their spirit and letter into practice. In this respect, Soviet history is no source of encouragement29 . As such the NSR is a “one-state and multiple nation route,” whereas the NEP is a “two state and multiple nation route.”         

In the Barents Sea there are two shipping routes between the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard – which has no native population of its own - and cities on the Russian and Norwegian mainland.  Cargo ships from Murmansk supply the Russian community of Barentsburg in Spitsbergen and bring coal back to the city of Murmansk, whereas Norwegian ships do the same between Longyearbyen in Spitsbergen and the city of Tromsø in North Norway. These routes have been in operation in the summer season ever since the early 1900 century. In recent years, the Norwegian route has been operated on a commercially viable basis. In addition, a rapidly increasing number of cruise ships calls on different locations in the archipelago during the summer (see chapter 3). 

Huge areas of the Arctic currently have inadequate infrastructure to support marine shipping. This includes such infrastructure components as availability of ports and port facilities needed for different types of vessels operating in Arctic waters, the accuracy and availability of information needed for safe navigation and availability of search and rescue assets.

Along the NSR/NEP there are several ports and port points. Even if there are adequate accesses to ice-breaker assistance, only a very few have the essential facilities such as adequate water depth, berths and mechanizations needed for increased shipping. Adequate marine communication systems exist in some parts of the NSR, but not in others. Communications using VHF-radio, MF- and HF-systems and satellite are generally adequate for the lower parts of NSR, but data transmission becomes problematic when the high arctic is reached. Russia has currently several on-going projects developing systems to meet the demand of better communications for ships operating along the NSR. Several search and rescue centres are located along the NSR, but only a few can give the support needed for ships sailing along the route. Russia have made structural plans for implementation of search and rescue technology along the NSR up to 2020, but need great financial support to complete the plans (see chapter 5).


  •  1. Regulations for Marine Operations headquarters on the Seaways of the NSR of 1976, Regulations for Navigation of the Sea Ways of the NSR of 1991, Guide to Navigation through the NSR of 1996, Regulations for Icebreaker-Assisted Pilotage of Vessels on the NS
  •  2. Peresypkin, Yakovlev (2008), p. 4
  •  3. Jørgensen, T. S. (1991), Sea Ice - Nature’s Major Challenge for Human Enterprise in the Arctic, in Festscrift to Willy Østreng: Challenges of a Changing World, Fridtjof Nansen Institute, Lysaker 1991
  •  4. 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
  •  5. Brubaker, D., W, Østreng (1999), The Northern Sea Route Regime: Exquisite Superpower Subterfuge? in Ocean Development and International Law, vol. 30, 1999.
  •  6. AMSA (2008), Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment, Report Draft, 14 November 2008
  •  7. 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
  •  8. USGS (2007)
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  •  10. Østreng, W. (1991). Den nordlige sjørute: En ny æra i sovjetisk politikk? Økonomiske, folkerettslige og sikkerhetspolitiske aspekter”, Den norske Atlanterhavskomite, Oslo, Det sikkerhetspolitiske bibliotek,nr. 9/1991
  •  11. Simonsen (1996), pp. 4-5
  •  12. Tamvakis, Granberg and Gold (1999), p. 264
  •  13. Frolov, I.E. V.Ye Borodachev and V.Yu. Alexandrov (2007), Section 1.4: The Soviet-Russian System for Supporting Navigation in Johannessen, Alexandrov, Frolov, Sandven, Pettersson, Bobylev, Kloster, Smirnov, Mironov and Babich (2007)
  •  14. Østreng (1999 II), pp. 169-174
  •  15. US Presidential Directive (2009)
  •  16. Gordienko, P.A. (1960), The Arctic Ocean, in Ocean, no. 2, 1960
  •  17. Kassel, Bernard M. (1959). Soviet Logistics in the Arctic. In US Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 85, no. 2, February 1959
  •  18. Sater, J. E. (1969), The Arctic Basin, Washington D.C. 1969.
  •  19. Lensky, L., Damage Statistics on Ships sailing the Northern Sea Route, Undated mimeographed paper.
  •  20. Arikaynen & Chubakov (1987), p. 130
  •  21. Bulatov (1997), p. 82
  •  22. Armstrong, T (1981), The Northern Sea Route, 1980”, in Polar Record, vol. 20, no. 128, May 1981.
  •  23. Frolov, I.E and B.A. Krutskih(ed.) (2008), Hydrometeorological supplying of navigation in XX and beginning of XXI centuries , Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, St. Petersburg, 2008 I.
  •  24. AMSA (2009), Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment, Report, PAME, Arctic Council, Terragraphica, Anchorage, April 2009
  •  25. Arctic Marine Transport Workshop (2004), 28-30 September 2004, Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge University, Cambridge
  •  26. Ramsland (1999)
  •  27. Golovnev, A. V. and G. Osherenko (1999), Siberian Survival. The Nenets and Their Story, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, London, 1999.
  •  28. Dallmann, W. K. Indigenous peoples of the Russian North. Tromsø, no date
  •  29. Osherenko, Schindler et al. (1997)

Willy Østreng, 2010, The Northeast Passage and Northern Sea Route 2, CHNL.©