Russian tanker passes through Bering Strait in the midst of winter
Last week, a 908-foot Russian tanker carrying liquified natural gas passed south through the Russian side of the Bering Strait, with two more on track to follow suit later this week. The ships are traversing the northern coast of Siberia, called the North Sea Route, in the middle of January with no icebreaker escort, an unprecedented event that may hint at the future of the region as climate change alters global commerce.
Wes Jones, Director of Research & Development for Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation in Unalakleet, first noticed the tanker, called the Nikolay Zubov, about a week ago when it traveled east from of the Siberian port of Sabetta.
“This is huge, that the Russians are sending these vessels over the top in the middle of January,” he said. “Even if they were escorted by heavy Russian icebreakers, that would still be a major thing, but right now we’re not seeing any evidence that these vessels are being escorted by icebreakers. That’s another level of game changer.”
Jones uses an international tracking service called the Automatic Identification System, or AIS, to keep an eye on Russian fishing vessels in the Bering Sea, which can have an impact on NSEDC’s fishers on the Alaskan side. But over the past few years, he’s noticed more and more cargo ships showing up on AIS, passing along the North Sea Route on their way between Europe and Asia. Many of the ships are ferrying LNG from the Yamal LNG project, a huge gas drilling complex near Russia’s northern coast, to China where the LNG is used as an industrial fuel.
Shipping the fuel east over Russia instead of west into the Atlantic cuts down on time and fuel costs dramatically, but it comes with risks. Historically, shipping through the North Sea Route has been blocked by thick winter sea ice, which makes the route impassable to all but specialized icebreakers. But climate change has altered that equation. After Russia’s unusually warm summer, much of the route is still open water, and most of the ice is thin and spread out. The Nikolay Zubov, built in 2019, is one of a fleet of 15 ships that are specially designed to transport LNG through thin, sparse sea ice.
For the first time, these ships are ferrying fuel through the Arctic as late as January, when much of the route is supposed to be frozen and some regions are dark 24 hours a day.
Jones said two more similar tankers have shown up on AIS traveling east from Sabetta as well, although he can’t see more details about them until they get closer. They’re on track to pass through the Bering Strait later this week, likely also carrying LNG from Yamal to China.
Although some shipping through the strait has been going on for the better part of a decade, most of it is done during the summer. Seeing unescorted tankers transiting the Bering Strait during the winter is extremely unusual.
“I’m pretty surprised at how fast this has come on,” said Jones, who saw around 50 Russian ships pass through the strait this fall alone. “We’re seeing stuff right now that three or four years ago I didn’t expect to happen for 20 years.”
Gay Sheffield, the agent for University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Alaska Sea Grant program in Nome, has been keeping an eye on Russian shipping in the Bering Strait for years now, but is just as alarmed to see it progressing so quickly
“There’s been lots of talk over the years now of how we’d deal with that, but it’s here now,” she said. “The issue is here.”
LNG tankers first started making the journey in 2018. At 299 meters, these ships are substantially larger than the specialized research and military vessels that normally traverse the strait and represent a commercial opportunity that’s only likely to grow as the sea ice further recedes and technology improves.
A report released by the Center for High North Logistics at Norway’s Nord University Business School cited 62 transits through the Northern Sea Route between January 1 and December 9, 2020, compared to just 37 in all of 2019. An estimated 32 million tons of cargo passed along the route in 2020, compared to just 10.7 million tons in 2017. Russian president Vladimir Putin has stated that he aims to boost that number to 80 million by 2025.
In 2019, the Russian government released an ambitious plan to have at least 40 Arctic vessels by 2035, many of them nuclear-powered icebreakers to keep the route passable by regular cargo ships for most of the year.
In May of 2020, the first vessels of the season set a record for the earliest passage of the route by commercial tankers. The ships passing through the Bering Strait currently are setting another record for the latest.
The route will likely close at some point in February as the ice firms up, but that window of impassability is only liable to shrink.
The surge in Arctic commerce has caused concern in local communities, as the huge tankers bring along a slew of unknowns and potential risks.
The potential effects of commercial shipping on Arctic wildlife hasn’t been well studied, commercial shipping has been known to negatively affect wildlife through noise pollution and direct strikes. In the Bering Strait, where many species concentrate as they migrate between the Arctic and Pacific oceans, that effect could be greater. It’s also of critical importance, as Indigenous communities on both sides of the strait rely on marine mammals and seabirds as a primary source of food.
The risk of an accident or oil spill is also a concern, especially in areas that get little to no winter daylight with treacherously moving ice. The region’s remoteness would also make it difficult for search and rescue teams, especially in the event of a large vessel accident. The Coast Guard operates two search and rescue helicopters out of Kotzebue during the summer months, but during the winter the closest U.S. Coast Guard base is in Kodiak.
There’s also very little communication between marine authorities on either side of the strait, which Sheffield said would be the biggest challenge as the region becomes more commercially active.
“When you’re in the Bering Strait region, all the marine resources are shared,” she said. “How do we move forward together in a transboundary region when it comes to search and rescue, ship awareness, education?”
She added that the division between Alaska and Chukotka was really only political. The Bering Sea is one marine ecosystem, and for thousands of years people freely crossed back and forth across the strait.
She also pointed out that as Arctic shipping increasingly becomes the norm, communities on both sides of the strait will experience the same issues and have the same concerns about local impact, despite the fact that the two sides are managed by two different countries with organizations that have almost no dialogue.
“The biggest problem is communication, or working together,” Sheffield said.
In Little Diomede, a few miles away from the Russian Big Diomede, conditions on Monday were poor, with low visibility and 30 to 40 knot winds, according to longtime Diomede resident Robert Soolook. A week prior, the entire island was surrounded by sea ice, but a recent storm had exposed open water on the southern side. Soolook said the conditions were liable to change quickly. He had heard that there were massive Russian tankers passing by no more than 15 or 20 miles from his village, although he hadn’t seen them himself. But he was eager to know what was going on and how it might affect the marine environment, especially since so much of Diomede’s food comes directly from the ocean.
“We’re very curious, we have to know all this stuff,” he said. “We have to know what’s going on, because the sea is our store.”
Editor's note: As of January 15, 2021, two more LNG tankers are headed south from the Chukchi Sea towards the Bering Strait.