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Russia's Northern Sea Route Posts Record Year for Traffic Volume

northern sea route
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Published Dec 23, 2021 10:54 PM by The Maritime Executive

Despite an early freeze-up that briefly trapped multiple merchant vessels, Russia's Northern Sea Route posted its busiest navigation season ever in 2021. 

Total traffic reached 33.5 million tonnes as of mid-December, compared to 33.0 million tonnes in all of 2020. The figure for the full year is expected to exceed 34 million tonnes - an increase of 350 percent over the past five years. This is one of the many signs of economic growth in Russia's Arctic, particularly in the oil and gas industry. Liquefied natural gas and oil tankers make up the majority of total traffic on the route.

Transit traffic (passing through the region) came to more than two million tonnes by mid-December, compared to 1.3 million tonnes in 2020. This marks the third year in a row of through-traffic growth on the NSR, which has seen its popularity as a through route increase by more than 300 percent since 2018. 

"In 2021, 79 of the 92 vessels that transited the NSR were non-Russian, demonstrating how international partners are increasingly viewing the NSR as a viable transport corridor," said Maxim Kulinko, the deputy director of Rosatom's Northern Sea Route Directorate. "As we expand seaport capacity along the route, we expect this growth trajectory to continue for many years to come."

Russia's ambitious goal is to achieve total yearly traffic of 80 million tonnes by 2024 and 110 million tonnes by 2030. A warming Arctic is opening up new economic opportunities for the region, as the extent of average ice cover retreats and the average ice thickness declines. However, the high latitudes still hold unique risks for shipping, as shown by the sudden ice-up along the NSR in late November. Multiple ships became stuck in earlier-than-expected ice along the route, prompting Atomflot to dispatch several icebreakers to conduct a record-setting escort operation.