Soviet Arctic Marine Transportation

Lawson W. Brigham

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The development of marine transportation in the Soviet Arctic during the past three decades has been an extraordinary achievement. The Northern Sea Route (NSR), which stretches approximately 5000 kilometres across the Soviet maritime Arctic, has steadily become linked to the overall development of Siberian resources.1

Since 1978 Soviet ice-breakers and ice-strengthened carriers have maintained year-round navigation to Dudinka, port city for the industrial complex at Noril'sk. Thus, ships are routinely plying the ice-covered waters of the Barents and Kara seas throughout the winter, a rare occurrence around Alaska and in the Canadian Arctic. Summertime navigation along the entire NSR, including the numerous rivers, estuaries, and deltas of the Soviet northern coast, continues to be expanded through the application of a broad range of advanced marine technology. Much of this technology has been developed in Finland and the Soviet Union.

A recent estimate of the annual level of operation of the NSR shows approximately 600 freighting voyages carrying six million tons of cargo.2 The attainment of this level of marine commerce in the Arctic Ocean, and the high capital investment required to maintain and improve such a difficult transportation route, underscore the significance and long-term commitment successive Soviet leaders have attached to this endeavor.

Figure 1 (sorry no figure available - look at an atlas) illustrates the main marine transportation routes from Murmansk on the Kola Peninsula east to the Pacific Ocean. Also shown are the north-flowing rivers of the Soviet Arctic, an inland waterway of great importance to the movement of cargo and passengers throughout the interior of Siberia. These rivers serve as the major link between the NSR and the principle railroads to the South. It is clear that development of much of Siberia is dependent on an effective and reliable marine and river transportation system because industrial and population centers are widely dispersed in areas that lack roads and railways.

Three general patterns of arctic operations exist along the NSR. The most prominent by a wide margin is the support of the industrial complexes on the Ob' and Yenisey rivers by ice-breakers and commercial ships to and from Murmansk and Arkhangel'sk. Gas pipelines for the extensive oil and gas industry on the Yamal Peninsula are generally shipped to the Ob' estuary and moved upriver by barge. Timber from the milling center at Igarka is shipped down the Yenisey and to the West (including foreign ports). Copper and nickel ore from the Noril'sk area is carried by rail to the river port of Dudinka and then shipped on the NSR to Murmansk where there is nearby excess capacity for smelting.

In the Far East, operations are run from Vladivostok and other Pacific ports to the port of Pevek on the East Siberian Sea and the Kolyma River. Precious metals and other mining enterprises are serviced, and many coastal communities lacking harbors and adequate cargo-handling facilities are supplied. The third operation, somewhat less well established, involves the central region of the Soviet maritime Arctic. Freight comes mainly from the West during July through October to the port of Tiksi on the Laptev Sea and to the Lena River. At times there is a linkage of sea convoys with river craft. Cargo is also distributed along a route between the Lena and Kolyma rivers.

In recent years the entire length of the NSR has been accessible to shipping from mid-July to October.3 This is achieved by stationing polar ice-breakers in the straits and other areas of difficult ice conditions to provide escort as required. However, through voyages of the NSR have not been made in any regular fashion. Several experimental voyages have been accomplished by ice-breakers escorting cargo ships for the duration of the transit. In 1984 and 1985, cargo ships, a majority being the new SA-15 arctic ice-breaking vessels, made transits from Vancouver, B.C. and Japan to ports in the western sector of the NSR. Remarkably, several of the SA-15 voyages were unescorted for the length of the NSR.


The Soviet Ice-breaker Fleet

One of the most visible aspects of the operations on the NSR is the extraordinary Soviet ice-breaker fleet. More than 75

Russian Ice Brwaker

ships specially designed as ice-breakers sail the Soviet maritime arctic. Comprising this fleet are many unique arctic vessels, including such diverse types as polar, sub-arctic, salvage, river, large harbor, and research ice-breakers. Most important for arctic marine transportation are 16 large polar ice-breakers of exceptional icebreaking capability.4 These ships, designed for convoying commercial ships in the high latitudes, are the keys to providing virtually unlimited access to much of the Soviet North. Each of these 16 ships ranks among the largest and most powerful ice-breakers in the world.

Polar ice-breakers are generally defined as those ships capable of independent operations in the heavy, multi-year ice of the Arctic Ocean. The Soviet ships in this category include four nuclear ships: Lenin, the first nuclear surface ship (44 000 shaft horsepower), Arktika, Sibir, and Rossiya (all three at 75 000 shaft horsepower). Four additional nuclear polar ice-breakers are currently under construction in Leningrad and Helsinki. In the spring of 1988 one of these ships, Taymyr, a shallow-draft, nuclear ice-breaker, was delivered by the Finnish shipbuilder Wartsila to the Soviet Union for installation of a nuclear reactor. Twelve diesel-electric-powered ships, all built since 1959 in Finland and all with shaft horsepower greater then 22 000, make up the balance of the Soviet polar ice-breaker fleet. In comparison, Canada operates only a single polar ice-breaker in this size range, the Canadian Coast Guard's Louis St Laurent. The United States has only the ice-breakers Polar Star and Polar Sea to match the capabilities of these Soviet ships.

Below is the Nuclear Ice Breaker Yamal leading the CCGS Louis St Laurent, and USCG Polar Star.


Technological Challenge

The Soviet ice-breaker fleet is an obvious necessity for the effective movement of marine traffic along the NSR. Just as important, however, is a modern fleet of multi-purpose cargo ships capable of independent transits (without continuous icebreaker escort). The early Lena and Amguema class arctic ships built in the 1950s and 1960s proved too small and lowpowered for the extended navigation seasons pioneered since the late 1970s. During the past decade the Administration of the Northern Sea Route has focused its attention on improving the ice-breaking capability, cargo capacity, and range of specialized ice-breaking freighters. As a result, the Soviet Union has recently built several such vessels in its own shipyards and has also sought the advanced icebreaking technology of Finnish shipbuilders. All of the recent additions- Soviet-built nuclear and non-nuclear lighter-aboard-ship (LASH) carriers (Sevmorput and Aleksey Kosygin), 5 Finnish built SA-15 ice-breaking cargo ships (Noril'sk class),6 and a Soviet-built SAS-8 shallow-draft arctic freighter (Vitus Berring)-are technically advanced and represent vastly superior designs for arctic commerce on the NSR.

The breadth of technical and environmental challenges faced by the designers of Soviet arctic cargo ships is impressive. A lack of port facilities in the Soviet North forces designers to consider alternative solutions such as using roll-on/ roll-off configurations and barge or lighter systems. Soviet arctic cargo ships must have the capability to moor along ice wharves and unload cargo on shorefast ice. Widely spaced port fuelling stations require these ships to have large fuel capacities and to be capable of refueling from Soviet polar ice-breakers, so that ice-breaking operations can be sustained. Due to these endurance limitations, nuclear power has become an attractive and viable alternative. Commercial ships with ice-breaking hull forms must be able to operate in level ice thickness of 1.5 meters and in temperatures that reach as low as -50C. These extreme temperatures can have adverse effects on most external ship systems, such as cargo-handling equipment. The shallow depths of the deltas and estuaries of many regions of the NSR also limit draft design. Finally, high structural standards must be met for ice-breaking, since transits must be made in narrow straits where the ice can be under extreme pressures. Collectively, these criteria pose unique challenges and call for innovative technical solutions by both Soviet and Finnish ship designers.

The Future and Implications

The future of Soviet arctic marine transportation appears secure. As resource development expands in Siberia, investment in the ships and support infrastructure for the NSR will increase. This will surely include improvements in remote-sensed ice imagery for strategic as well as tactical use. By the early 1990s a sizeable nuclear fleet of polar ice-breakers and commercial ships will be operational (perhaps as many as a dozen nuclear ships). These vessels of unlimited endurance will be able to support an increase in the number of winter transits to the Yamal Peninsula and to the port of Dudinka. An expansion in the navigation season in the Laptev and Eastern Siberian seas to six months may also be possible. The technological development of larger and more capable ice-breaking cargo ships will continue. Thus, more independent through transits of the NSR may be attempted, frequently linking Canadian, Japanese, and other Pacific ports with the western sector of the Soviet maritime Arctic.

The nuclear ice breaker Yamal pictured below.

This expansion of operations in the Soviet Arctic may provide several opportunities for Canada. Under existing science and technology agreements, Canadians can potentially learn a great deal about Soviet ice navigation and the applications of advanced technology to the Arctic. The potential also exists for the export of technology proven in the Canadian Arctic. As the next century unfolds we may conceivably see the transits of Canadian polar ships across the NSR with the helpful assistance of Soviet polar ice-breakers.


1. The Northern Sea Route is the system of sea lanes north of the Soviet coast from the straits between the Barents and Kara seas (south of Novaya Zemlya) to the Bering Strait.
2. L. Brigham, "International workshop on the Soviet Maritime Arctic", Polar Record, vol. 24, no. 149 (April 1988), p. 132, estimate by T. Armstrong of Scott Polar Research Institute.
3. T. Armstrong, ''The Northern Sea Route, 1986", Polar Record, vol. 23, no. 146 (May 1987), p. 589.
4. The Soviet polar ice-breakers (depending on their maximum power) can continuously break 1.4 to 2.4 meters of level ice at 3 knots.
5. I,ASH ships carry materials in barges or lighters that are off-loaded by a gantry system to waters in areas lacking port facilities. The Sevmorput will carry 74 barges of 1300 containers.
6. A total of 19 SA-15 arctic ice-breaking cargo ships will soon be in operation. Each 174-meters ship of 14 500 tons is capable of continuously breaking l- meter level ice.
Lawson W. Brigham is a Commander in the U.S. Coast Guard and a Guest Investigator at the Marine Policy Center of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Major Events in the Modern Development of Soviet Arctic Marine Transportation

NSR-Northern Sea Route

1960 Nuclear polar ice-breaker Lenin (world's first nuclear surface ship) commences escort duties along the NSR in July.

1970 Lenin and the subarctic ice-breaker Kapitan Belousov convoy the cargo ship GizAiga to Dudinka in an experimental winter voyage.

1971 Lenin and the polar ice-breaker Vladivostok, in a May-June demonstration, forge a high-latitude passage across the NSR without convoy.

1975 Nuclear polar ice-breaker Arktika (world's most powerful ice-breaker, at 75 000 shaft horsepower) enters service.

1977 Arktika becomes the first surface ship to reach the North Pole, on 17 August 1977.

1978 Nuclear polar ice-breaker Sibir and the cargo ship Kapitan Myshevskiy conduct a high-latitude voyage north of the Soviet island groups in May-June.

1978 Successful attempt during the 1978-79 season at year-round navigation from Murmansk to Dudinka.

1982 First two SA-15 ice-breaking cargo ships, Noril'sk and Tiksi, are delivered by Finnish shipbuilders.

1983 Kosmos-1500 satellite launched with imaging radar which will improve strategic ice information.

1983 51-ship convoy becomes trapped in heavy ice off the north coast of Chakotka near Pevek during October-November; rescue is accomplished by a major ice-breaker group, but not without the loss of one ship and serious damage to many.

1984 Six trans-Arctic voyages are completed by ships (five are SA-15s) sailing the NSR from east to west-from Japan and Vancouver, B.C. through Bering Strait to ports in the West.

1984 Ice-breaking LASH (lighter-aboard-ship) carrier Aleksey Kosygin makes its maiden voyage north from Vladivostok.

1985 Three SA-15 ships participate during November-December in an experimental navigation season extension, sailing from Vancouver, B.C. across the NSR to Arkhangel'sk.

1986 Nuclear ice-breaking LASH ship Sermorput, built for routes between Vladivostok and eastern ports along the NSR, is launched in Kercb.

1987 Sibir reaches the North Pole on 27 May 1987.

1988 Nuclear shallow-draft polar icebreaker Taymyr, built by Wartsila in Helsinki, is delivered to the U.S.S.R. for installation of a nuclear reactor.


Polar Record, Vodnyy Transport, Soviet Shipping, and Polar Geography and Geology.
Read further on polar exploration the US based WHOI's Beaufort Gyre Exploration Project