What to Know About Managing Ice Conditions in the Russian Arctic?


Sunrise over sea ice. Credit: Rowan Romeyn / Alamy Stock Photo.

Facing climate change and increasing economic activity in the Arctic, ice management (activities on accurate sea-ice forecasting using necessary technological developments – ed.) is becoming one of the key factors ensuring safe and efficient maritime operations. Dangerous ice objects drifting in the Arctic seas can reach enormous sizes, posing a threat to drilling platforms’ operation and cargo ships’ navigation.

Ice conditions analysis involves a set of technologies for water area remote monitoring, aerial video surveillance with UAVs and radio navigation buoys. General monitoring of the water area and coastal zone is carried out using satellite radar imaging. The obtained data is supplemented by hydrometeorological information provided by the network of stations in the operation area, as well as by vessels at sea. All materials are collected in the Ice Management System information system which operates since 2017. Based on this data, ice experts and analysts identify potentially dangerous ice objects.

Meanwhile, Russia faces a shortage of satellites to obtain prompt and accurate information about the ice cover along the Northern Sea Route. This is quite complicated topic. It used to be like this: the world's scientific communities - both European and American - have historically been aimed at providing all professionals with free access to meteorological information. Data was collected from the Sentinel-1, RADARSAT-2, Terrasar-X, Paz satellites... Joint scientific research was carried out based on the data from these satellites. In Russia, most of this data is obtained and used by the military; civilians and scientists have limited access to it.

It was decided to compensate for the shortage of satellites in the Russian Arctic with installations based on land and vessels, primarily icebreakers. The Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology has been developing Arctic UAVs for several years, today the Institute is working on creating the installation for operational ice reconnaissance based on a tiltrotor. A tiltrotor combines the parts of an airplane (load-bearing planes of wings and tail with control devices) and a quadcopter (four propellers in a horizontal plane for vertical lift). The mass of the tiltrotor with equipment is about 55 kg, the wingspan is 4 m. It can be disassembled and put into a box approximately the size of an office desk. The main danger for him is icing. Fuel is regular gasoline, the tank is enough for a four-five hour flight.

In 2024, Rosatom Corporation Northern Sea Route Directorate aims to purchase at least one such installation. It includes two drones and equipment for observation, flight control and data processing. The drones are designed to be based on Project 22220 icebreakers, currently the possibility of placing them on other vessels are being explored. Legal regulations also should be updated: devices heavier than 30 kg are subject to general flight regulations for large manned aircraft, but this is doesn’t fit operational monitoring of the Northern Sea Route. So, to begin with, the Directorate plans to launch drones in experimental mode.

A further step was the establishment of the second Arktika-M satellite in mid-December 2023 (the first one was launched in 2021). It focuses on transmitting weather information from polar latitudes. The satellite measures the temperature of land and sea surfaces and the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere. The satellite provides meteorologists with the necessary data to make the most accurate weather forecasts. In addition, Arktika-M carries on board systems that ensure the transmission of emergency signals from vessels in distress. However, it is still premature to talk about comprehensive monitoring of dangerous ice objects.

Obviously, nowadays’ Western sanctions negatively impacted the provision of satellite data and the supply of equipment to Russia require close dialogue between the state and all Arctic stakeholders to coordinate actions. The 13th International Forum “The Arctic: Present and Future” in St. Petersburg in early December 2023 noted that in addition to external sanctions, Russia has many internal barriers that impede the information exchange. Confidentiality requirements do not allow large companies operating in the Arctic zone of the Russian Federation to exchange information with other organizations.

Russian approaches to managing ice conditions historically may be divided into three periods:

- until 2014, the so-called theory of best practices : we will buy the best on the market to implement projects involving international participants.

- from 2014 to 2022, Western technologies became far less accessible, but everything can be bought in the East, especially in China.

- from 2022 – today, not everything can be bought in the East. It is necessary to catch up with technological sovereignty.

Probably, China would be interested in establishing cooperation in the field of satellite developments for monitoring and assessing ice conditions (some attempts are made in the field of remote sensing of the earth surface). At the same time, the situation is that Russia considers the Arctic zone rather in terms of a guarantee of economic sovereignty of the country than a territory of dialogue and cooperation. Moscow evaluates any business or other activity across the Arctic in terms of protecting national interests and national sovereignty despite economic benefits and win-win policy are evident.

In the near future, Russian experts expect that large businesses and the State as such will put many efforts to enhance missing competencies and skills to develop independent technological solutions that ensure effective management of the ice situation, primarily on the Northern Sea Route. International cooperation in finding solutions will be based on considerations of national security and the goal of achieving technological sovereignty. As for the world academic and expert community, these factors will hinder open interaction and cooperation within the framework of project activities.

Ekaterina Serova



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