Major uncertainties about the route

Despite the obvious advantages of the route, its challenges are such that many remain skeptical about its future. Its technical feasibility could be offset by a string of operational, environmental and economic uncertainties.

The biggest question mark hangs over the development of the weather and ice movement in the Arctic in the coming years and whether the navigation window will expand further.

There are also requirements for vessels' ice class and size which mean that only 130 tankers and a handful of bulkers, or around 1% of the global fleet, can actually use the NSR, according to an estimate by a source at a Scandinavian brokerage.

Analysis continues below...

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In terms of the shipping costs, the necessity to pay a service fee for the escort of two powerful icebreakers offsets some of the savings on bunker fuel.

The use of the icebreaking services is necessary because the difficult, icy waters pose a high risk of a vessel being trapped or damaged by ice.

A recent accident involving the tanker Nordvik is an example. In early September, the tanker, loaded with 4,944 mt of the Arctic-specification diesel, was punctured by an ice floe on its way along the NSR and started taking water while navigating to the north of the Taimyr Peninsula.

The accident took place as the tanker, which is of the Ice 1 class and allowed to navigate through light ice conditions only, had violated the navigation rules by entering waters of so-called "medium" ice conditions without an ice-breaker convoy, according to the Russia's Marine and River Transportation Agency.

Finally, there are major environmental concerns because the consequences of an oil spill in the Arctic would be much more significant than those of the Macondo spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. The remoteness of the region, compounded by its harsh weather and ice, make it more difficult to organize rescue and cleanup operations.

It also remains unclear how more navigation in the Arctic would affect its indigenous people as well as its flora and fauna.

"It is highly ill-advised to speak about easy and ice-free shipping via the Northern Sea Route," the World Wildlife Fund said, pointing to the fact that in September ice coverage in the Arctic is 40% more than in the same period a year ago, when it was at a record low of 3.4 million square km.

While ice flow has seen a general downward trend from the mid-1970s, change in the ice coverage in the Arctic is uneven. This means that dramatic and more frequent changes in the weather are likely to take place in the future, posing additional risks in the Arctic, the WWF said.

Next page: Recent shipping activity via the Northern Sea Route

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