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Two Icebreaking LNG Carriers Meet in High Arctic in January

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Arc7-class icebreakling LNG carriers Christophe de Margerie and Nikolay Zubov transit the Northern Sea Route over Siberia, Jan. 11 (Image courtesy Pole Star)

Published Jan 10, 2021 10:41 PM by The Maritime Executive

The icebreaking LNG carriers Christophe de Margerie and Nikolay Zubov are about to pull off an unprecedented feat: both are transiting Russia's Northern Sea Route in January, and they are on track to pass each other at a location in the East Siberian Sea - without icebreaker escort. The development is a testament to the capabilities of the Sovcomflot-operated Christope de Margerie class, but also to the commercial implications of a warming Arctic, with younger and thinner average ice cover. 

It is not the first time that one of Novatek's icebreaking LNG carriers has transited the Northern Sea Route in January, but the simultaneous, unescorted voyages suggest that the viable navigation season on the NSR is growing much longer. In 2020, the first eastbound unescorted voyage from Novatek's Yamal LNG terminal departed in mid-May, and Novatek / Sovcomflot intend to operate their specialized vessels on the route as late as February this year.

These early- and late-season voyages are not an available option for non-icebreaking vessels, at least without an escort. Russia's nuclear-powered icebreaker fleet is available to clear the way, but only at a cost. "[The rate] is sufficient for Russian goods, especially hydrocarbons, to be sold efficiently in the Pacific markets," said Vyacheslav Ruksha, the head of the Northern Sea Route Directorate of Rosatom, in an interview last month. "But I am sure that the icebreaker cannot be free, otherwise there will be no equal accessibility."

As the Northern Sea Route becomes more attractive for Russian shipping, Rosatom - which is tasked with the seaway's development - is investing in bettter hydrographic survey equipment to inform navigation. In addition to upgrading its three survey vessels and giving them a life extension, Rushka's directorate has called for a new Arc7 ice classed survey vessel to map out the seabed and keep tabs on the route in "difficult ice conditions." 

Rosatom also recently took delivery of the world's largest icebreaker, the newly-built, nuclear-powered Arktika. However, the vessel sustained damage to her starboard side electric propulsion motor in early 2020, and she has been operating on her remaining two motors only this season. 

Top illustration appears courtesy of Pole Star.