Exploring new opportunities for navigation in the Arctic seas via AIS data

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Guest article by Julia Sokolova, a researcher at the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute in Saint Petersburg:

Nowadays, shipping companies working in the Russian Arctic, as well as the Russian Government, are actively discussing the possibility of expanding the navigation window in the Northern Sea Route (NSR). Several reasons contributed to this discussion.

Firstly, many studies show a stable tendency of ice cover decrease in the Arctic Ocean, intensified during the last decade. Secondly, modern shipbuilding allows designing vessels of high ice class. Last but not least, remote sensing data helps to reduce time costs for navigation in sea ice.

Since 2017, experimental voyages of LNG carriers through the NSR have been carried out during very early or very late dates. Comprehensive information about vessel movement, power engine work, along with reports on the ice conditions, allows assessing the efficiency of the chosen route and gives a more detailed picture of the ice situation along the entire NSR.

FleetMon kindly provided AIS data to the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI). The data helped our researchers to study the motion of LNG carriers Christophe de Margerie, Nikolay Yevgenov and Nikolay Zubov performing their late voyages during the polar winter in 2021.

Analyzing the data

On January 5, the LNG carrier Christophe de Margerie left the port of Sabetta and headed to the east. On January 16, she successfully completed the independent voyage along the Northern Sea Route by crossing the traverse of Cape Dezhnev. On January 6, LNG carrier Nikolay Yevgenov departed to the east, following the route of Christophe de Margerie. At the same time, one more LNG carrier, Nikolay Zubov entered the NSR in the Chukchi Sea, heading to the west towards Nikolay Yevgenov and Christophe de Margerie. Along the entire NSR, all three LNG carriers were sailing independently, without an icebreaker escort. A month later, on February 16, Christophe de Margerie headed in her backward voyage to the west, but this time an icebreaker 50 Let Pobedy accompanied her.

The average speed of these three independent voyages varied between 8.5 and 9.5 knots and the average time spent on the NSR amounted to 11-12.5 days. The average vessels speed calculated within the four Arctic seas, crossed by the NSR, showed that the most challenging sites for vessels movement lay in the eastern seas (East Siberian and Chukchi seas). The average velocity in these seas could deviate from the average velocity for the entire route by 2 knots. The western voyage of LNG carrier Christophe de Margerie with icebreaker escort took 13 days. The backward journey took more time because the vessel chose a longer route in the eastern part of the NSR on the one hand. On the other hand, the thickness of the ice cover had increased along the route within a month since the early voyages.

Drawing conclusions

Analysis of late voyages in January and February 2021 showed that LNG carriers of the Arc7 ice-class are able to perform predominantly independent voyages along the NSR (with icebreaker escort only in limited areas) outside the current navigation window, set by The Northern Sea Route Administration of Russia, without significant loss in the commercial speed.

Read the related article Arctic Shipping: The new Gold Rush to know more about the different shipping routes and navigational paths to traverse the arctic ocean.

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