An ice-class cargo carrier escorted by two nuclear icebreakers transported a 12,000 ton module from China via the Arctic. It was the first such voyage this late in the winter – a further sign of the rapid opening of the Arctic Ocean.
The Arc7 ice-class module carrier Audax delivered a massive prefabricated plant module for Novatek’s Arctic LNG 2 facility via the Northern Sea Route (NSR). The ship departed Tianjin, China on December 29th, entered the NSR at Cape Dezhnev on January 25th, and arrived in Murmansk, Russia on February 17th. In the past the NSR traditionally closes for cargo traffic in December and reopens in early summer.
However, due to declining ice extent the shipping season has been extended in recent years. According to Novatek this was the first time such a large cargo vessel traveled along the route in February.
Audax was escorted by icebreakers for part of the way to pass through sections of the NSR which traditionally hold the thickest ice. Ice conditions are particularly challenging this winter as the route saw severe freezing already in November.
Due to the size of Audax, icebreaker assistance in the route's most challenging sections in the Chukchi, East Siberian and Kara Seas involved two nuclear icebreakers, Yamal and Arktika, widening the ice channel, Novatek explained in a statement.
With a beam of 43m Audax is substantially wider than Russia’s largest nuclear icebreakers, requiring two such vessels simultaneously to break a channel wide enough for the cargo ship to pass through. To further optimize these types of escort voyages, Russia has begun construction of a new icebreaker called the Leader-class with a beam of 60m capable of single-handedly opening up a channel wide enough for even the largest cargo ships.
Building Novatek’s next LNG facility
The module Audax delivered is part of Novatek’s second Arctic liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant in the Arctic. The first, Yamal LNG, began operation in 2017 and has since produced around 65m tons of LNG. The next plant, Arctic LNG 2, will be located in close proximity on the other side of the Ob Bay.
In contrast to Yamal LNG’s modules which were assembled on site, Novatek is employing an LNG construction center in Belokamenka near Murmansk where elements will be installed onto gravity-based structures (GBS) before being transported to the Arctic LNG 2 site.
Unique vessels for Arctic deliveries
Audax is part of a logistic system developed by Novatek for Yamal LNG as far back as 2010. The vessel and its sister ship Pugnax are used to deliver pre-manufactured modules from around the world to the port of Sabetta on the Yamal Peninsula or to the construction center near Murmansk.
The two Arc7 ice-class heavy deck carriers were developed by Finnish icebreaker design company Aker Arctic and constructed at Guangzhou Shipyard in China.
The vessels are more than 200m in length and 43m wide and can carry 21,800 tons of cargo on a flat cargo area the size of two football fields. Two vessels were constructed in 2016 and are the only vessels of this type - combining traditional heavy cargo lift ability on a wide cargo deck with high ice-class protection. The carriers can travel at speeds of 3 knots while traveling through ice up to 1.5m thick.
"Two of the major challenges in designing the vessels were firstly the weight of the modules and secondly the way they will be loaded onto the ship, as the ship needs to stay balanced at all times. We had to optimize the construction so that it did not become too heavy but remained strong enough to manage the weight," explains Aker’s project Manager Mika Hovilainen.
Any ice present during loading and unloading presents a safety hazard and needs to be removed.
With individual modules weighing in excess of 10,000 tons, the equivalent of around 5,000 SUVs, keeping the ship balanced was key. The ship’s draught also had to be limited to 8-12 meters as waters along the NSR and in the river deltas can be shallow.
Operating in the Arctic environment also required unique features, such as a cargo deck heating system. Ocean spray from the sea freezes immediately on contact creating dangerous conditions on the 175m by 43m deck area. Any ice present during loading and unloading presents a safety hazard and needs to be removed.
After extensive calculations and testing Aker designed a system that uses steam pipes below the deck which can be turned on 24 hours before unloading.
While mid-winter traffic in the Arctic for now requires highly specialized vessels, Novatek says that the successful completion of the voyage “testifies to the reliability of the Company's logistics model and the possibility of year-round LNG deliveries via the Northern Sea Route to the Asia Pacific region.”