Drifting oil tanker prompts Arctic icebreaker rescue

icebreaker2 The 50 Let Pobedy icebreaker bringing politicians to the North Pole. (Photo: Murmansky Vestnik)

A tanker carrying tons of oil through Russia’s fragile arctic could have become an icebound environmental disaster had it not been for a rescue mounted by the nuclear icebreaker Yamal.

According to reporting in the Barents Observer, the Chukotka Plus tanker, laden with several thousand tons of oil, was inexplicably making a run for it though the Northern Sea Route in ice as thick as two meters without an icebreaker escort.

Though the tanker has its ice class certification, it is rare for all but the most fortified vessels to attempt the icy journey during winter months without at least some accompaniment from icebreakers – a requirement usually enforced by the Northern Sea Route Administration, which Russia oversees.

Sibir_icebreaker The Sibir icebreaker at the Atomflot port. (Photo: Anna Kireeva)

Yet there has been no word from the route administration on why the Chukotka Plus and its potentially dangerous cargo were apparently allowed to attempt the East-West trek by themselves through conditions that could pose a potential challenge even for a nuclear icebreaker built to handle them.

According to a release from Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, the Chukotka Plus entered the 6,000 kilometer-long Arctic sea corridor via Murmansk on October 30, bound for points east.

Several days into its voyage, it ran into trouble. Six time zones east of Moscow, while passing from the Laptev Sea to the East Siberian Sea via the Sannikov Strait, the Chukotka Plus became mired in ice and was unable to break free.

Nuclear icebreaker Nuclear icebreaker yamal. Photo: Wikimedia Commons Photo:

For several hours the crew had no control over the vessel. Instead it drifted, hostage to the ice in which it was trapped, until it was brought to rest when it ran aground on a sand bar.

It was there that the Yamal found the tanker on November 22, according to a Rosatom release, and mounted a rescue operation to free it. The vessel was said to be undamaged and there were no signs that it had leaked any of its oily cargo, Rosatom said.

For its part, the ship’s owner, the Chukotka Trading Company, hasn’t offered any statement about the incident.

Atomflot, Russia’s nuclear icebreaker port, indicated that the Chukotka Plus continued its journey with intermittent icebreaker support.

As of December 1, the Northern Sea Route Administration reported that the vessel was approaching the Bering Strait via the Chukotka Sea, and was apparently out of icy conditions.

Navigational data supplied by the Marine Traffic website, which offers real-time positions for most of the world’s commercial freighters, confirmed that the Chukotka Plus was indeed steaming between Chukotka and Alaska.

 

But many details about the rescue remain unclear. The Barents Observer reports that information on the ship’s route obtained separately from Marine Traffic and Rosatom are at variance.

That, in turn, could suggest that the dates Rosatom has provided for the tanker’s rescue by the Yamal icebreaker could be inaccurate.

Although there is no reason to believe the vessel is any longer in trouble, its plight amplifies the dangers of allowing oil tankers to sail unescorted through hazardous ice conditions in the Arctic’s fragile ecosystem.

It’s not uncommon for even the best-prepared convoys to be daunted by bad ice conditions in the Eastern Siberian Sea. Early this year, two cargo vessels and its diesel-powered icebreaker escort were trapped in ice in the Chukotka Region’s Chaunskaya Bay for more than a month.

There have been more alarming incidents in the past. In 2013, an tanker called the Nordvik, attempting to pass through the Laptev sea with no icebreaker support, was damaged after colliding with an ice floe.

The ice tore a gash in the vessel, which threatened to shed its load of heavy diesel fuel into the Arctic ecosystem. The Nordvik drifted for several days sending out a distress signal and was finally guided to safety by two Russian nuclear icebreakers, the Vaygach and the Taimir.

 

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no