Financial Times - Russia’s Arctic Obsession 16min

This is Tiksi, a decaying town in the Russian Arctic. Here, more than 4,000 kilometres from Moscow on the coast of the Laptev Sea, 4,550 people inhabit a wasteland whipped by blizzards and wrapped in polar night for half of the year. Surrounded by thousands of kilometres of permafrost, the town has no outside land connection. Its main lifeline is an airport manned by a military unit, a relic of Soviet times, when the country’s Arctic territory was dotted with military bases. ... Global warming, which is causing Arctic sea ice to melt at an unprecedented pace, is watched with alarm in other parts of the world. But in Russia, the rising temperatures are fuelling expectations that the waters along its northern coast, long a frozen frontier, could once again become a vibrant shipping line, rivalling some of the world’s most important trading routes. ... In theory, the NSR could compete with routes that have dominated global maritime transport for decades. Calculated between the ports of Yokohama and Hamburg, the 7,200 nautical miles shipping distance between Asia and Europe using the NSR is 37 per cent shorter than the southern route via the Suez Canal. ... Total cargo transport volumes plummeted from a peak of 6.58 million tonnes in 1987 to just 1.46 million tonnes in 1998. ... total cargo volumes recovered to 5.15 million tonnes last year, almost back to the level of 1990. ... The idea of mastering nature is very much part of Russian identity, as is the myth of conquering the Arctic, despite the decline of Moscow’s footprint in the far north over the past 25 years. ... Since there is still a lot of ice on the northern oceans, this makes passages risky and drives up insurance premiums. Only ships with reinforced hulls can use the NSR with relatively few restrictions and even for them passage times remain unpredictable. The waters off Russia’s coast are also far shallower than those on the southern route, meaning that the world’s largest, most cost-efficient container ships can’t be used.