Map Shortcomings Could Hinder Northern Sea Route Growth

Icebreakers are expensive but without them, vessels in the Northern Sea Route face much higher risks partly because the area's ice is not sufficiently mapped. (Photo:

Weak satellites in the Northern Sea Route area and poor sea maps are among the bottlenecks preventing a massive Arctic transit system.


Sea ice and depth mapping deficits still exist near the Northern Sea Route that could temper international excitement about the prospect of extensive Arctic shipping. 

Melting ice allowed the region to open up shipping routes in Arctic waters that are mostly under Russian control and cut significant transit time between Europe and Asia. Use of the route has steadily grown since ships began using it in 2010.  

According to data from the Northern Sea Route Administration, four vessels used the route in 2010, 34 used it in 2011, 46 used it in 2012 and 71 used it last year. China will be releasing a guide to Arctic shipping in July for ships sailing through the Northern Sea Route to Europe. 

But the current weak satellites in the area and poor sea maps are like bottlenecks preventing the kind of massive Arctic transit speculated by some, said Jan-Gunnar-Winther, director of the Norwegian Polar Institute, to the BarentsObserver. 

Satellite communication with ships in the High North is weak which means ship operators cannot adequately take real-time high-resolution images for other vessels to use, Winther said. 

These kinds of images give information about sea conditions which allow efficient and safe maneuvering in water that is partly covered in ice, he said.  

The area is particularly dangerous to navigate without sufficient mapping data because there is limited infrastructure for search and rescue operations. 

Vessels are safest on the route when following icebreakers which can help navigate frozen Arctic patches and be a first line of support in a search and rescue operation, said Gunnar Sander, an Arctic sea ice researcher with the Norwegian Polar Institute, to the BarentsObserver. 

Icebreakers are expensive but without them, vessels face much higher risks, he said.

A 138-meter tanker was stranded for several days after it struck ice during September while sailing in the Matisen Strait of the Northern Sea Route without an icebreaker escort. 

The Northern Sea Route Administration had granted the tanker a permit to sail in the Kara Sea and the Laptev Sea in light ice conditions with an icebreaker escort. 

“As far as I can judge now, the Russians have quite a good system as long as you follow the icebreakers,” Sander said.

In addition to ice on the water, depth data is also lacking in many parts of the Arctic Ocean,  according to a January report on the Arctic by the World Economic Forum nonprofit organization in Switzerland. 

Bathymetric mapping, or depth mapping, is critical for monitoring ocean currents and the development of shipping lanes in the shallow waters near Russia’s Arctic coast, according to that report.

The Northern Sea Route passes through some straits which are less than 10 meters deep, according to a 2013 report for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by a panel of Arctic researchers. 

Large ships now mostly follow a route north of the New Siberian Islands which is at least 18 meters deep. 

Many of the mapping deficits that could create a bottleneck effect for shipping in the area are being addressed through both widespread charting and legal measures. 

Russia is increasing its hydrographic work in the Arctic and the country has commissioned surveys for the white spots on maps that lack depth data in 2015 and 2016, said Vitaly Klyuev, the deputy director of the Department of State Policy for Maritime and River Transport of Russia, in a 2012 announcement.  

Russia is also planning to have ten Arctic search and rescue centers by next year. 

The International Maritime Organization is developing a mandatory international safety code for ships in polar waters called the Polar Code. Mapping and charting issues will be included in the code. 

The responsibility for how the Polar Code would be implemented would lie with the states themselves, which would give them broad discretion, said Tore Henriksen, a professor and director of the sea law center at the University of Tromsø, to the BarentsObserver.

Despite ice melting in the Arctic region, it is still a serious danger for shippers in the area and expensive icebreakers are the best option for safe travel, Sander said.

“It’s completely misleading to talk about an ice-free Arctic Ocean,” Sander said. 

While the number of ships in the region and along the route is growing, it still sees nowhere near the number of vessels as routes like the Suez Canal, which had more than 17,000 vessels last year.