Arctic Icebreaker: How Russia Is Clearing The Northern Sea Route

Moscow sees huge new business opportunity in northern shipping routes. But figuring out the best ways to travel via the Arctic is a massive, and chilly, undertaking.

Breaking the ice in the Arctic
Breaking the ice in the Arctic
Nikita Aronov

MOSCOW — When, in the 1990s, the Northern Sea Route administration left its headquarters in central Moscow for good, polar explorer Artur Chilingarov took a wooden door sign with him as a souvenir.

Even then, he was sure the Northern Route would one day be reborn. "I always knew that the Northern Sea Route would exist," the ice explorer says. "Logically, there had to be a time when we decided to extract the oil in the far northern shelf, and the only route that would allow that is the Northern Sea Route."

Motivations for reopening the route are purely pragmatic. According to several estimates, about one-fifth of the world's oil and gas reserves are located in the Arctic region. It's thus no surprise that Russia is in the process of trying to regain control over 1.2 million square kilometers of ocean area that was previously controlled by the Soviet Union.

Should we be surprised that the Arctic is becoming the site of major geopolitical intrigue? Russia is sending researchers to the far north and building military bases. The Northern Seas are increasingly frequented by both military and civilian ships.

And so last year, the Northern Sea Route administration was indeed reestablished, as the nation eyes the Arctic again. But there is one fundamental difference between the missions now and the Soviet-era work on the Northern Sea Route: This time, the main actors are corporations, not the government.

Capitalism's construction

Right now, the biggest construction project in the Arctic is not a military base. It's a natural gas liquefaction plant, located in a settlement that was considered dead just eight years ago but is now teaming with life.

"Now, 40-ton concrete blocks are being brought here for the factory construction," explains Karen Stepanyan, vice director of sea deliveries for Sovfracht, the company providing logistical support for the construction. There are also five-ton factory modules that are assembled overseas and delivered ready-to-use. There is a ship with ice protection being specially constructed to help build the project.

Lukoil is managing another major construction project in the North. In 2008, the company opened an oil terminal in the Barents Sea, which made the Guinness Book of World Records for being the northernmost, year-round oil terminal. As part of the project, Lukoil is building its own icebreakers, or ice-protected ships.

Even before that, Russian nickel mining company Norilsk Nickel built its own fleet of six icebreakers allowing the company to provide its own shipping services.

"Their ships are very interesting," Stepanyan explains. "Their icebreakers are on the stern, so when they are going through ice, they go backwards. That means that the icebreakers don't make the ships lose speed when they are sailing through ice-free water."

Stepanyan's company, Sovfracht, also has three icebreakers, but they are simpler and older. But even with that modest fleet, the company has become the primary transit operator on the Northern Sea Route, renting out its icebreakers to most of the government construction projects along the route. Even the government projects on the Northern Sea Route, it seems, are entrusted to private companies.

Arctic delivery

In August, the warmest month in the Arctic, the thermometer was showing 2° Celsius (35° Fahrenheit). A long ship approached the island and stopped several kilometers away, unable to get closer because of the depth. Small barges went out to meet the ship and brought back several small cranes, which were then used to unload the remaining containers. That's what a shipment looks like in these remote islands, where there are no docks of any kind.

"Until last year, no one on the Novosibirski Islands had any infrastructure," says Dmitri Purim, also from Sovfracht. "Now we are the only ones who have some. We have tractors and barges. Imagine being surprised by a tractor! But this isn't some farm in suburban Moscow. The closest tractor is 5,000 kilometers away. Tools are valued differently."

It's true that everything is different in the Arctic. Even during the warm season, only about 10 days a month are suitable for unloading. And winter can start abruptly. This year, the frost came early and two ships had to be left abandoned for the winter at the islands while the crew was evacuated by helicopter. It is sometimes possible to work in the winter, and in Soviet times it was relatively common to carry deliveries over the ice that forms around the island.

Sometimes, Stepanyan says, he envies his Soviet predecessors. "If only I were given unlimited financial resources, like the Soviets were. But we have bids, and we have to count the money. There are times when we know that something has a simple solution, but we have to find a more complicated but cheaper way to do it."

The price of icebreakers in the Northern Sea Route increased substantially in 2014, largely because of reduced government subsidies. But there is a ceiling on what they can charge. They don't want the Northern Sea Route to be more expensive than sending the ship through the Suez Canal. The route's primary focus isn't to compete with the Suez, but as long as the infrastructure has to be built, why not try to steal some of the traffic?

The Northern Sea Route's main advantage is the distance it saves. From Murmansk to Japan through the Suez is 12,800 sea miles, while over the Northern Sea Route it is only 5,800 sea miles. A longer distance means more spent on gas and crew. There also aren't any Somali pirates in the Arctic. But there are other serious disadvantages for freight companies.

"A standard route is one thing. On the Northern Sea Route, there is a risk of losing the ship," Stepanyan says. "Insurance companies take that into account, and it increases insurance costs."

There are also technical challenges. Large modern ships rarely have serious ice protection, and suitable ports for them along the Northern Sea Route are only just being built.

A real increase in traffic on the Northern Sea Route started in 2010, when it was discovered that the polar ice caps were melting and leaving large areas of the route ice-free. Even if the navigation period would never be longer than a half year, the melting of the ice caps sparked new interest in the route. Most of the transit there so far has sailed under the Russian flag, although ships from other countries have made the trip too.

Nonetheless, transit through the route decreased in 2014, as there was less global trade with China and Korea, and there was also much more ice on the route last year than in the previous one. But looking for the long-term future, the development of infrastructure has kept churning onward.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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