Shipping operations support in the “High North”: examining availability of icebreakers along the Northern Sea Route

  • Dimitrios Dalaklis
  • Megan L. Drewniak
  • Jens-Uwe Schröder-Hinrichs


A rather significant number of business entities already operate within (or, have considered to exploit) the Arctic region, focusing upon previously untapped resources such as precious minerals and large quantities of oil and gas; touristic and fishing activities are clearly on the rise, with various endeavors of maritime transport also being put forward. Up until recently, harsh year-long environmental conditions have significantly hindered the necessary access and transport connections in the Arctic. Even in the case that weather conditions did permit vessels’ passage, unreliable navigational aids and lack of infrastructure/support provided obstacles difficult to overcome. However, environmental data recorded during the last couple of decades clearly indicates that there is a continuous decline of ice coverage in the “High North.” Given this steady decline, the Arctic has now been viewed as a promising field for economic activities and is considered as a potential connecting corridor between Asia and Europe/America (and vice-versa). As human presence and operations are expected to intensify there, it is of utmost importance to evaluate the current level of support towards ships that will be crossing the region; capabilities in relation to search and rescue (SAR) operations and oil spill response are also important. The analysis in hand will first deliver a discussion of the so-called Arctic Passages. While various different maritime routes have been proposed in relation to the Arctic, the most promising one, the Northern Sea Route (NSR), will provide the epicenter of discussion. Through an extensive literature review that includes numerous internet resources, the current analysis will identify the numbers of icebreakers already operating in the NSR, as well as those that will be commissioned into service in the near future. The choice to research the specific type of vessels is supported by a simple argument: icebreakers currently are and will continue to be in the foreseeable future the main “tool” to support shipping activities in the Arctic. Furthermore, emergency management capabilities in the Russian Arctic will be examined to include the current state of rescue coordination centres along with the availability of SAR assets. Additionally, the efforts thus far by the Arctic Council to increase coordination and interaction among the States involved in Arctic affairs will be summarized; the latter will be achieved via a brief review of a very important legally binding agreement: the “search and rescue” instrument. In conclusion, the Russian State has already heavily invested in icebreakers’ building and their current number is fully capable to handle the present level of limited traffic. On the other hand, ships are currently faced with long distances to cross (often without adequate support) adverse environmental conditions, unpredictable hurdles, and slow response times in case of an emergency. Therefore, in case ships operating in the region are increased, it will be difficult to deal with all the additional demands for support. Of particular interest is the fact that considering the vast area of the NSR, the overall available response capabilities in the region under discussion are rather thin; any further increase of maritime traffic in the “High North” must be balanced with additional strengthening of emergency management capabilities. In any case, should the NSR become fully integrated in the global maritime transport system, Russia’s geopolitical status will be clearly improved and further research is needed to discuss the implications both at the regional and global levels.


Arctic High North Northern Sea Route (NSR) Shipping operations Icebreakers’ services Search and rescue (SAR) 



The current research was conducted under the MARPART-2 MAN and MAREC-SAMRISK Projects. The views herein are solely of the authors and do not represent the views of the United Nations/World Maritime University, or the Department of Homeland Security/US Coast-Guard, or any other organization with a similar scope.


  1. Arctic Council (2009) Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment 2009 Report, available online:
  2. Barnhart KR, Miller CR, Overeem I, Kay JE (2015) Mapping the future expansion of Arctic open water. Nat Clim Chang 6:280–285. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bennett MM (2014) North by Northeast: toward an Asian-Arctic region, available online:
  4. Borsch OJ, Andreassen N, Marchenko N, Ingimundarson V, Gunnarsdottir H, Ludin L, Petrov S, Jacobsen U, and Dali BI (2016) Maritime activity in the High North–current and estimated level up to 2025. MARPART Project Report 1, Nord Universitet, Bodo, 2016Google Scholar
  5. Cariou P, Faury O (2015) Relevance of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) for bulk shipping. Transp Res A 78:337–346Google Scholar
  6. Climate NASA (2016) Climate trends continue to break records, available online:
  7. Dalaklis D, Baxevani E (2016) Arctic in the global warming phenomenon era: new maritime routes and geopolitical tensions. In: Delfour-Samama d'O, Leboeuf C, de Gwenaele P-M (eds) New maritime routes: origins, evolution and prospects. A. Pedone, ParisGoogle Scholar
  8. Dalaklis D, Baxevani E (2017) Maritime routes in the Arctic: examining the level of traffic and port capabilities along the Northern Sea Route. In: Chircop A, Coffen-Smout S, McConnell M (eds) Oceans’ Yearbook 31. Brill Nijhoff, Leiden, pp 06–35. Google Scholar
  9. Dalaklis D and Drewniak M (2017) The Arctic region: mapping the current state of icebreakers & identifying future trends, (presentation) Maritime Search & Rescue 2017 conference, Helsinki-Finland, 24 May 2017.
  10. Dalaklis D, Baxevani E and Siousiouras P (2016) The future of Arctic shipping business and the positive influence of the Polar Code, International Association of Maritime Economists 2016 Conference, Hamburg-Germany, August 24, 2016Google Scholar
  11. Deboer S (2017) Arctic security and legal issues in the 21st century: an interview with CDR Fahey, available online:
  12. Dewitz J, Dalaklis D, Olcer A, and Balini F (2015) Arctic LNG: exploring the benefits of alternative fuels to mitigate environmental impact risks, presentation in the conference: ShipArc 2015: Safe and Sustainable Shipping in a Changing Arctic Environment (World Maritime University), Malmo, SwedenGoogle Scholar
  13. Domonoske C (2016) Russia launches world’s biggest, most powerful icebreaker, available online:
  14. Drewniak M, Dalaklis D (2018) Expansion of business activities in the Arctic: the issue of search and rescue services. In: Chircop A, Coffen-Smout S, McConnell M (eds) Ocean Yearbook 32. Brill Nijhoff, LeidenGoogle Scholar
  15. Drewniak M, Dalaklis D, Kitada M, Ölçer A and Ballini F (2017) Geopolitical considerations of shipping operations in the Arctic: mapping the current state of icebreakers and identifying future needs, International Association of Maritime Economists 2017 Conference, Kyoto-Japan, June 27–30, 2017.
  16. Eger KM (2010) Canadian ports on the Northwest Passage, CHNL, available online: <>
  17. Eguíluz VM, Fernández-Gracia J, Irigoien X, Duarte CM (2016) A quantitative assessment of Arctic shipping in 2010–2014. Sci Rep 6:30,682 available online: CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Farré AB, Stephenson SR, Chen L, Czub M, Dai Y, Demchev D, Efimov Y, Graczyk P, Grythe H, Keil K, Kivekäs N, Kumar N, Liu N, Matelenok I, Myksvoll M, O'Leary D, Olsen J, Sachin Pavithran AP, Petersen E, Raspotnik A, Ryzhov I, Solski J, Suo L, Troein C, Valeeva V, van Rijckevorsel J, Wighting J (2014) Commercial Arctic shipping through the Northeast Passage: routes, resources, governance, technology, and infrastructure. Polar Geogr 37:4, 298–4, 324. Google Scholar
  19. Funkdec McK (2014) The Wreck of the Kulluk. The New York Times, available online:
  20. Hansen Ø, Grønsedt P, Graversen L and Hendriksen C (2016) Arctic shipping—commercial opportunities and challenges, available online:
  21. Hodges P (2015) Study: Arctic Sea ice too thick for icebreakers, available online:
  22. Kronbak J, Liu M (2010) The potential economic viability of using the Northern Sea Route (NSR) as an alternative route between Asia and Europe. J Transp Geogr 18(3):434–444CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Marsh WM, Kaufman MM (2012) Physical geography: great systems and global environments. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Moe A (2014) The Northern Sea Route: smooth sailing ahead? Strateg Anal 38(6):784–802. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Nilsen T (2016) Announces tender for fantasy giant icebreakers, available online:
  26. Northern Sea Route Information Office (2017) available online:
  27. NSIDC, National Snow and Ice Data Center (2017) Low sea ice extent continues in both poles. January 5, 2017, available online:
  28. Østreng W (2010) The northeast passage and northern sea route, available online:
  29. Overland JE, Wang M (2013) When will the summer Arctic be nearly sea ice free? Geophys Res Lett 40:2097–2101. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Pettersen T (2011) Russia to have ten Arctic rescue centers by 2015, Barents Observer, 18.11.2011. Accessed 8 Aug 2014
  31. Pettersen T (2016) Proposes center for supply and logistics in the Arctic, available online:
  32. Richter-Menge J, Overland JE and Mathis JT (2016) Arctic Report Card 2016, available online:
  33. Shaw J (2016) Icebreakers—expanding the world’s fleet, Volume 32, No 02, available online:
  34. Staalesen A (2016) Government outlines Arctic priority zones, available online:
  35. Stephenson SR, Smith LC (2015) Influence of climate model variability on projected Arctic shipping futures. Earth's Future 3:331–343. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. U.S. Department of State–International Security Advisory Board (2016) Report on Arctic policy, available online:
  37. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) (2016) Review of maritime transport, (Series). available online:
  38. Wilson KJ, Falkingham J, Melling H, and De Abreu R (2004) Shipping in the Canadian Arctic—other possible climate change scenarios, available online:
  39. Your Subsea News (2017) Fincantieri: Kronprins Haakon launched in Muggiano, available online:

Copyright information

© World Maritime University 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.World Maritime University (WMU)MalmöSweden
  2. 2.United States Coast Guard on SecondmentWashingtonUSA

Personalised recommendations