Throwing cold water on the NSR pipedream

Throwing cold water on the NSR pipedream

Looking for a good book for the dog days of summer? In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette is a title perfectly suited for July.

This incredible story, well told by author Hampton Sides, recounts the US Arctic Expedition’s attempt in 1897 to sail through the Bering Sea to the North Pole in the USS Jeannette, a 146-ft, three-masted ship with a reinforced bow and a supplemental steam engine.

Nearly 150 years later, the mission seems unbelievably foolhardy. But at the time, there was a widely held belief, unsupported by scientific evidence, that the world’s dome was covered by warm water. Once the surrounding ice was pierced, the theory went, it would be clear sailing to the pole.

The theory was wrong. Lt. George Washington De Long and his crew sailed into the winter Arctic, and their ship was trapped in ice for 21 months, out of contact with the rest of the world. When the Jeannette finally broke clear, De Long set a course for the northern coast of Siberia, several hundred miles away.

It was a race against winter as De Long heroically tried to save his crew. When the Jeannette foundered, the 33-man crew set out over the ice, trying to reach the Lewna River delta on the arctic coast of Siberia. A group of them made it, only to be stranded again through the long Russian winter. De Long and most of his crew perished.

Their story came to mind when reading Bruce Barnard’s report on Arctic shipping. Our understanding of the Arctic and its hazards has come a long way since the voyage of the Jeannette, but it is still a risky place for mariners.

As climate change has shrunk the Arctic ice pack, Russian authorities are promoting the Northern Sea Route as a way to shave 4,500 nautical miles off a typical voyage between East Asia and North Europe. Some officials even claim the Northern Sea Route could eventually rival the Suez Canal as a cargo route.

Do not bet on it. Despite the hype, east-west transit shipments through the Northern Sea Route are likely to remain a niche trade. Almost all of the traffic so far has been related to Russian oil and gas exploration and extraction and related projects, notably the $27 billion Yamal liquefied natural gas plant. That is unlikely to change.

Several heavy-lift carriers have used the Northern Sea Route to deliver oversize plant modules to Yamal, and have added ice-class vessels to their fleets. These ships have proven their ability to handle Arctic conditions, but the big unknown is the Northern Sea Route trade’s growth ceiling. 

Using the Northern Sea Route to deliver large modules to remote construction sites makes sense for specific projects such as Yamal, although the advantage is reduced by today’s low bunker prices. For other voyages, it is a questionable risk-reward balance, even with a warming Arctic. 

Contact Joseph Bonney at and follow him on Twitter: @josephbonney.