According to the Barents Sea Observer, a Norwegian news platform, an early and unexpected freeze has trapped at least 18 cargo ships in the Arctic Sea on Russia’s Northern Sea Route (NSR).
Throughout November, ice up to 30cm thick has formed across most of the Laptev Sea and East Siberian seas.
In the past few years, ice conditions in late October and early November had allowed extensive shipping along the vast Russian Arctic coast. But in late October, large sections of the Arctic waters were already covered in sea ice. In the strait separating the mainland from Wrangel Island is an area with more than a metre thick of multi-year ice.
The early freeze-up has provoked a logistical nightmare on the NSR. Vessels loaded with goods are unable to reach settlements along Russia’s Arctic Coast.
In order to help ships sail through the route, Russia has deployed two icebreakers to escort an oil tanker, a container ship, and multiple bulk carriers. By the end of December, media reports indicate Rosatom intends to use four icebreakers.
Whereas Russia claims year-round transits will be possible on the NSR will be possible by 2024 with a cargo target of 80 million tonnes, such a claim was recently strongly challenged by John Hammersmark, head of emergency preparedness at the Norwegian Shipowners’ Association.