The Northern Sea Route User Conference:

The 21st Century: Turning Point for the Northern Sea Route?

18-20 November 1999

Holmenkollen Park Hotel Rica, Oslo, Norway


The Northern Sea Route (NSR) can potentially halve the distance between Europe and NE Asia, and seriously challenge the position of the Suez and Panama Canals. Is commercial shipping feasible on the NSR? And if so, under what conditions?

Six years of research within the International Northern Sea Route Programme (INSROP) has shown that international, commercial shipping on the NSR is feasible - economically, technologically and environmentally. This clearly applies to marine export of Russian Arctic oil and gas, and may under certain conditions also apply to transit traffic. However, INSROP has also identified obstacles which must be overcome before the NSR’s potential can be fully realised.

On this background, the Northern Sea Route User Conference was organized in Oslo 18-20 November 1999 as a forum for presenting INSROP’s research findings, for hearing the views and plans of the shipping industry, major exporters and relevant Russian authorities, and for discussing the way ahead.


Conference background

Programme overview

Detailed programme


Sponsors, Contributors, Organisers, Secretariat


Conference Background

For centuries, traders have dreamt of using the sea route north of Russia to shorten distances between Northern Europe and Northeast Asia. However, it was not until 1879 that the harsh ice and cold weather conditions were overcome by Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, who navigated all the way through the Northeast Passage from Europe to the Bering Strait.

Russia has since put considerable effort into developing the infrastructure of its Arctic regions, not least by developing marine transport along what is now known as the Northern Sea Route (NSR). A significant experience in organizing Arctic navigation has been accumulated. However, the difficult ice conditions and the geo-political problems during the Cold War era, have so far prevented the NSR from being widely used by international shipping.

The fact remains: A voyage between Hamburg and Yokohama is only 6,600 nm. via the NSR – less than 60% of the 11,400 nm. Suez route. Moreover, the Russian Arctic holds enormous reserves of oil, gas and other natural resources which may best be exported by sea.

As we enter the 21st century, technological, political and even climatic developments are again making the NSR an interesting possibility. Russia officially opened the NSR for foreign ships in 1991, and better and less costly ice-breaking technology is being developed. And although the NSR is impeded by ice and Russian political instability, the Suez and Panama Canals have their own inherent problems of draft limitations, which may be avoided on the NSR. Furthermore, political instability in the Middle East, the piracy problem in SE Asia, and a new political regime in Panama at the end of 1999 may also act to benefit the NSR. There are also indications that global warming may gradually improve the ice conditions of the NSR.

Even though plans for marine transport of oil and gas from Northwest Russia are already well advanced, very few foreign ships have yet ventured into – or through – the NSR.

Acknowledging the need to establish an extensive NSR knowledge base, the multidisciplinary International Northern Sea Route Programme (INSROP, 1993-1999) was created to investigate all aspects of potential, increased, international use of the NSR. The programme, which primarily was a joint Norwegian-Japanese-Russian venture, enlisted more than 450 scholars in 14 countries, and conducted research within the frame of four sub-programmes:

I: Natural Conditions and Ice Navigation
II: Environmental Factors
III: Trade and Commercial Shipping Aspects
IV: Political, Legal and Strategic Factors

In all, 167 technical reports on a very broad spectre of subjects were published, as well as several other end products (INSROP’s Integration Book, INSROP’s Simulation Study, the INSROP GIS Database and the NSR Environmental Atlas) which integrated the INSROP results in different ways.

The main conclusion of INSROP’s research is that a substantial increase in international commercial shipping is feasible – in economic, technological and environmental terms. The largest and most obvious cargo potential is found in the huge oil and gas reserves in the Russian Arctic – both onshore and offshore – where marine export towards western markets is likely to start up early in the new Century. As for transit traffic, INSROP’s survey of the main cargo-generating regions at the western and eastern ends of the NSR (NW Europe, NE Asia and the North American West Coast) identified a stable transit cargo potential, most notably for dry bulk. Calculations comparing the NSR with Suez have identified several scenarios in which the NSR will be the most profitable alternative, using already existing suitable vessels and provided that Russia adopts a reasonable tariff policy for the route. When it comes to the building of new vessels, built especially for NSR transits, INSROP was not able to identify any realistic scenarios under current market, technological and climatic conditions where it would be more profitable to invest in the building of such vessels than in the building of "ordinary" vessels to be used through Suez. However, INSROP also identified some major technological, financial and political problems which will need to be solved before the NSR’s potential can be fully utilized. Especially problematic are the Russian tariff policy, the size of investments needed to develop and maintain the NSR infrastructure (above all the ice-breakers), the jurisdictional status of the Russian Arctic straits, and the investment costs of building a fleet of operationally and environmentally sound state-of-the-art ice-classified vessels.

At the Conference, the essence of INSROP’s results were presented, along with general conclusions and recommendations. As our knowledge of the NSR increases, the focus must be shifted from scientific research to practical use. Therefore, the Conference was designed as a user conference, with user representatives on all panels and discussions focusing on the needs of the users of the NSR. The shipping industry and other potential users were given ample opportunity to raise their questions and air their concerns. The many key INSROP scientists attending the Conference were there mainly in order to answer those questions.

It is the organizers’ hope that the Conference provided potential users and political-administrative decisionmakers with new, important information concerning the NSR. We further hope that the Conference showed the way ahead towards economically, environmentally and technologically sound use of the NSR, by identifying some of the remaining obstacles or knowledge gaps.


Programme Overview


18 NOVEMBER 1999 - Introduction; Presentation of Research Findings

Opening Session
Opening addresses from the organizers, and from representatives of INSROP’s three main partner-nations, Russia, Japan and Norway. Brief presentation of NSR history and INSROP background.

The NSR Basics: What is Known? What is Needed? What is Possible?
A representative of INSROP sums up what we now know about this previously obscure part of the world; a prominent representative of the international shipping industry presents the industry’s main concerns; and a high-level representative of the Russian authorities sketches Russia’s plans for developing the NSR.

INSROP’s Main Findings
Presentation of main findings and conclusions within each of the four INSROP sub-programmes: I – Natural conditions and ice navigation; II – Environmental factors; III – Trade and commercial shipping aspects; IV – Political, legal and strategic factors.

The INSROP Simulation Study
Presentation of INSROP’s numerical simulation of NSR navigation. This technology-oriented integration of INSROP results has identified and quantified the factors on which the economical feasibility of international shipping depends. Many different scenarios have been investigated, including different NSR routes, different seasons and different ship types.


19 NOVEMBER 1999 - Discussion

The Commercial Advantages and Disadvantages of the NSR
What is the NSR cargo potential for transit traffic and for transport to/from the Russian Arctic? How has the shipping industry and marine insurance community welcomed the idea of the NSR? What will the tariff system be? How does the NSR compare with Suez and other existing alternatives?

Actual Experience of NSR Navigation
What is it like to navigate the NSR? What special skills are required for Arctic navigation? Such basic practical questions will be illustrated through slides and speeches by experienced Arctic sea captains, Russian and non-Russian.

Technology and Infrastructure for the NSR
What ship design is best for the NSR? What kind of navigational aid and infrastructure will be available? Present state and future developments in Arctic ship design and NSR infrastructure.

Securing a Stable, Profitable and Responsible Administrative Regime for the NSR – Political Problems to be Solved
How does Russia intend to administer NSR shipping? What are the requirements of the international shipping industry? How can sufficient investments be found for operating the NSR and maintaining the necessary infrastructure? How can the remaining legal obstacles be overcome? How must NSR shipping be regulated to ensure protection of the Arctic environment and local indigenous peoples?


20 NOVEMBER 1999 - Workshops; Summing-up


Closing Session
Workshop reports. Summing-up of the Conference by prominent representatives of the shipping industry, Russian authorities and INSROP researchers. Where do we stand? Where do we go from here?


The Conference programme also included:

The final, detailed programme can be found here.



The Nippon Foundation / Ship & Ocean Foundation
Assuranceforeningen Gard
Norwegian Shipowners’ Association
The Norwegian Minsitry of Foreign Affairs
The Central and Eastern Europe Programme
The Norwegian Industrial and Regional Development Fund (SND)
The Norwegian Research Council
The Fridtjof Nansen Institute


Embassy of the Russian Federation in Norway
The Norwegian Ministry of the Environment
Embassy of Japan in Norway
Assuranceforeningen Skuld
Citröen Norge A/S
The City of Oslo
Åke Berg, Artist


Ship & Ocean Foundation, Tokyo, Japan
The Fridtjof Nansen Institute, Lysaker, Norway
Central Marine Research and Design Institute, St.Petersburg, Russia


NSR User Conference Secretariat
Claes Lykke Ragner (Head) 
The Fridtjof Nansen Institute
P.O.Box 326, 1326 Lysaker, Norway
Tel: +47 67111900 / Fax: +47 67111910



The Northern Sea Route User Conference Secretariat (ed.), 1999: The Northern Sea Route User Conference - Executive Summaries. Lysaker: The Fridtjof Nansen Institute. ISBN 82-7613-377-0. 136 pp. NOK 100. (A poorly formatted electronic version lacking some of the content and illustrations can be found here).

C.L. Ragner (ed.), 2000: The 21st Century - Turning Point for the Northern Sea Route? Dordrecht/Boston/London: Kluwer Academic Publishers. ISBN 0-7923-6365-5. 307 pp. NLG 300 / GBP 93 / USD 147. Contains all, full speech manuscripts, as well as summary of discussions.

Page last updated: 10.01.2001