The Kara Gate – and beyond

A look at a globe can be instructive. Head-on, the Antarctic landmass of nearly 6.5 million square miles is surrounded by water, the Great Southern Ocean — waterlocked if you will. 

Flipping the sphere, its antipodal fraternal twin appears — the Arctic, an ocean of roughly the same area as its southern land-bound sibling. Its central basin is surrounded on its northeast and northwest edges (rims) by encroaching archipelagos forming scalloped bays — more so on its northeast Eurasian rim than on its northwest North American margin. An ocean nearly surrounded by land with its entrances and exits nearly, but not quite, opposed across some 165° of longitude — North Cape to Bering Strait … 135° Kara Gate to Bering Strait. 

Much history has been written of man’s attempts to find a shorter route to the East via the Northwest Passage. All the while, along the northern rim of Eurasia, lay the sleeping bear — a Northeast Passage — now referred to as the Northern Sea Route (NSR) providing a maritime sea margin, a “Rimland†— for the Eurasian “Heartland†of geopolitical theorist Halford Mackinder. In the politics of the 1950s and ’60s, “containment†ice formed the “fourth wall,†but gradually that wall, like others, is coming down — by melting.

News items concerning vessels making their way east or west via the Northern Sea Route have been appearing. As if on cue, political turmoil in Egypt with possible threats to the strategic Suez Canal on its eastern shoulder sent waves across the shipping (and financial) world, some no doubt, washing into the Barents and Bering seas and, quite likely, questioning glances northward to that waterway option nearly half a hemisphere away. The NSR is generally accepted as comprising (west to east) the following seas: Barents, Kara, Laptev, East Siberian and Chukchi — thence the Bering Strait.

Readers of respectable vintage will recall the horrific “Murmansk runs†of WW II. These voyages to bring supplies to Russia were made by courageous, vulnerable, plodding merchantmen that, once leaving the Norwegian Sea astern, cleared North Cape and entered the Barents Sea, taking the Kola Peninsula to starboard on their way to the Russian port. Tendrils of (relatively) warm waters — final remnants of the Gulf Stream’s North Atlantic Drift — maintain the Barents waters generally ice-free. Farther east across the Barents rises Novaya Zemlya, the northern archipelagic remnant of the Urals. Curving eastward and together with Taymyr Peninsula and the Severnaya Zemlya archipelago well to the east, like two encircling arms, they envelop the Kara Sea. Warm remnants of Gulf waters being barred by Novaya Zemlya, the Kara Sea had remained icebound much of the year eastward of the Kara Gate. As the 21st Century proceeds, however, Kara Gate and its strait are opening. 

In 2009, two German heavy-lift vessels made the first-ever commercial voyage though the Arctic’s Northeast Passage. The ice-class M/V Beluga Fraternity and M/V Beluga Foresight made the east-west passage from South Korea to Rotterdam via the NSR, stopping to discharge cargo at the Ob River port of Novy Port. They then continued west to Murmansk, thence on to Rotterdam.

In late August 2010, the 114,500-dwt Aframax tanker SCF Baltica carrying gas condensate from Murmansk via the NSR transited the Bering Strait, arriving Ningbo, China on Sept. 6. Escorted by three nuclear powered icebreakers, she covered the 2,500 nm leg between Murmansk and Pevek on Russia’s northeastern Arctic coast in 11 days.

The successful transit of Baltica (classed 1A – Super ice-class) was said by the President and Chief Executive of Sovcomflot to have “confirmed the possibility of operating large ice-class tankers along the NSR.†Sovcomflot is planning to send a Suezmax vessel (of the same ice class) along the NSR. The distance from Murmansk to China via this route is a little over 7,000 miles — as opposed to the southern route of 12,000 miles via the Med, Suez Canal and Indian Ocean.

As reported by Barents Observer, an ice-classed diesel-electric cargo vessel completed a 41-day round trip from Dudinka on the Yenisei River to Shanghai, marking the first sailing of the entire NSR without icebreaker assistance. Departing Murmansk on Sept. 15, 2010, the Russian vessel Monchegorsk arrived at Shanghai where, after discharging cargo, she departed, returning to Dudinka on Nov. 17 averaging 11.5 knots over her steaming time of 41 days. 

Emphasizing the transit potential was the September sailing of the first non-Russian vessel making a non-stop transit. The Danish-owned, Hong Kong-flagged, ice-class bulker Nordic Barents carried 41,000 tons of iron ore concentrate from Kirkenes, Norway, to China, avoiding the one-third-longer Suez Canal route from Scandinavia to Far East Pacific ports. This was the first grant of Russian authorities for a foreign-flagged vessel to pass from one foreign port to another via Russian waters under escort by Russian icebreakers along the NSR. It’s expected that ice-conditions will allow NSR transit voyages — which shorten the Scandinavia-China Sea passage by about one-third — for approximately three months in late summer through early autumn.

Predictions are that cargo transport via the NSR will increase tenfold in 10 years! Obviously, that estimate is based upon predictions such as the disappearance of arctic summer ice in five years. While reality does not always follow prediction, it is a fact that the Arctic is stirring from the planet’s slow warming trend, and close astern of the departing ice is commerce. 

Four areas of interest seem to break through those ripples originating in the Eastern Med:

• Increased use of trans-Arctic routes for intercontinental shipping via the NSR.

• Rapid expansion of intra-Arctic shipping as vast Siberian watersheds are opened.

•Accelerated expansion of Arctic resource exploration, recovery and transport.

• Promotion of the Arctic as a destination.

If there is any question concerning developing interest in the Arctic, a few of the reports in Barents Observer ( underscore those developments. China’s increasing attention, not only to trans-shipping possibilities, but also access to sub-sea resources; plans to commence drilling in the Kara Sea; Russian plans to develop a “Russian National Park†on Novaya Zemlya, etc. These, of course, are in addition to the gradually increased shipping noted above. In addition, the U.S. Coast Guard has issued a notice that is seeking public input in order to evaluate the need to establish vessel routing measures in the Bering Strait (in anticipation of increasing traffic?).

As reported by the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), the November 2010 Arctic ice extent of 3.82 million square miles was the second lowest on record over the previous 31 years of satellite observations. Those observations confirm that Arctic Sea ice continues in a long-term decline and “remains younger and thinner than it was in previous decades.†Not only has the extent of ice continued to decline, but of significance has been the continuing decline of oldest (5 years plus) and thickest ice which “has now disappeared almost entirely from the Arctic.†Approximately 23,000 square miles remained in September 2010 compared with the 722,000 square miles remaining in the summers of the 1980s.

Some comparisons are worth considering. The Mississippi has a length of some 2,300 miles and a drainage basin of 1.1 million square miles. Two of the Russian Federation’s major north-flowing rivers are the Ob (1,850 miles long/1.1 million square mile basin) and Yenisei (3,440 miles long/950,000 square mile basin) — both discharging to the Kara Sea. The third, the Lena (2,780 miles long/1.1 million square mile basin), empties into the Laptev Sea. Mackinder’s theory of the Heartland colossus was, in good part, dependent on interior communication and the ability to move goods; at that time the railroads provided that service. He also believed that that northern wall of ice reduced the heartland’s vulnerably to sea power. It worked both ways however — the same barrier to access blocked egress. It would seem that with the ice wall in slow retreat, the economic potential of those vast Siberian watersheds will be unleashed, shipping now able to carry cargoes northward to the Arctic basin and beyond. 

Jacob Kronbak is an associate professor in the Department of Maritime Research and Innovation at the University of Southern Denmark. Writing for Nordregio, Professor Kronbak calls attention to a study made by that department pointing out that the immediate consequences of shorter routes — savings in fuel and transit time that make possible increased numbers of trips — have to be balanced against other factors. The costs of producing ice-classed hulls, the obvious weather and ice uncertainties, increased navigational challenges in general — and the not insignificant cost and availability of icebreaker services. Not surprisingly, although other factors play a role in costs, the two major factors were the actual navigable time window and icebreaker fees. 

At the end of the day, profitable use of the NSR as an option to the southern routes (Panama and Suez) will depend upon increased ice-free windows and reduced fees (icebreaker, etc).

About the Author:

Following graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy, Jim Austin served aboard both a destroyer and cruiser with duties that included navigator, assistant CIC (combat information center) officer and air intercept controller. He subsequently worked on the submarine launched ballistic missile program for the General Electric Co.’s Ordnance Division. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard master’s license and writes frequently on ship collisions as seen through the twin lenses of the navigation rules and maritime law. He’s a retired physician living in Burlington, Vt.

By Professional Mariner Staff