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Northern Sea Route setting Arctic commerce records

Doug O'Harra

The tanker that just set the all-time speed record for crossing the Northern Sea Route over Russia has successfully passed through Alaska’s Bering Strait and delivered its natural gas cargo to Thailand.

“The STI Heritage arrived in the Bering Strait on July 29, having completed the NSR passage in a time of just 8 days,” the Marine Log blog reported on Aug. 30. “The vessel arrived at her final destination, Map Ta Phut, Thailand on August 16, 2011, completing the total voyage (from her previous discharge in Houston) of approximately 9,000 Miles.”

After loading 61,000 tons of stable gas condensate at Vitino, Russia, the Heritage steamed east toward North America, averaging an unprecedented 14 knots with the help of several Russian icebreakers, the Barents Observer reported in mid-August.

Credit the big melt. Arctic sea ice peeled back from Asia and North America faster than ever before in 2011, exposing vast expanses of open water along the Northern Sea Route over Russia earlier in the season than expected. (See the latest sea ice update from the National Snow and Ice Data Center.)

As a result, what was formerly an floe-choked transportation corridor kept open by the brute force of nuclear powered icebeakers has now experienced virtually free sailing.

During the past month, maritime commerce has been setting one record after another along the route, including the first transit by a bonafide supertanker and a record number of other ships planning to steam from Europe over Russia toward Pacific ports of southeast Asia.

All of these ships have passed — or will pass — through the 53-mile-wide Bering Strait off mainland Alaska’s far western tip.

The tanker Vladimir Tikhonov launched for the Bering Strait on Aug. 20 with 120,000 tons of gas condensate — the largest ship of its kind to traverse the Northern Sea Route up until that point, the Barents Observer reported Aug. 24. The Russian natural gas giant Novatek chartered the ship and plans to ship a total of 420,000 tons of gas condensate through over the route before the end of the season, the paper has said.

Two days later, the Barents Observer reported that the first Japanese ship would make the journey — the massive bulk carrier Sanko Odyssey, hauling 72,000 tones of iron ore from Russia to China via the Bering Strait.

“The vessel is currently loading the iron ore — produced at Kovdor mining company on the Kola Peninsula – in Murmansk Port and is bound for departure in the end of August,” the paper said here.

It’s not just big-time commerce that’s invading the summer-time Arctic near European and Baltic ports. Russia has even announced plans to draw tourists and scientists to the formerly completely off-limits and forbidding Arctic islands of Novaya Zemlya and Franz-Josef Land as part of a new Russian Arctic National Park, the Barents Observer reported last week.

“We already make tours to the national park together with large tour operators in compliance with the existing Russian legislation,” park director Roman Viktorovich Ershov told the paper. “We have had 11 tours and received more than 800 tourists. 90 percent of them are foreign tourists.”

Contact Doug O'Harra at doug(at)alaskadispatch.com.