Amphibious Trilogies

About the Northern Sea Route (NSR)

The Northern Sea Route was one of the main topics of interest in conceptualising the project and its theme PASSAGE. We were motivated to investigate one of the world’s largest, emerging pathways that highlights a set of complex matters, relations and transformations: climate, trade, strategic, informational etc. The NSR is a massive historical construct in its own right, as Vakhtin (209) reminds us.

We intended to sail the route from east to west, but as we cover elsewhere in this site, despite considerable efforts it was not possible to board a ship or afford a passage through the route. While this was disappointing, in making such inquiries we learned a great deal about just how complex, constrained and just how much this was a projected route for a near future while at the same time becoming more navigable with increased melting of sea ice. By summer 2020, ships were sailing through the route without an accompanying ice breaker

For us the NSR provided a fascinating but entangled set of systems and communication. At one level is intentionally part of a national far north in the Russian Federation, and has been an active zone for local, seasonal and regional trade along coasts and between interiors. We visited Arkhangelsk and saw its storied histories as a key urban and maritime trade and military site.

At another level, the NSR is central to contemporary geo-politics. Russia’s drive is to not only mine the coal for export and extract for gas into new containerised ships. Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) is now central to some western governments’ claims to provide a ‘bridge’ from oil to sustainable and ecologically sound energy sources and supplies. Those countries are thus connected to the movement of fossil fuels from the Arctic and through the NSR (see e.g. Savitzky, 2016).

The NSR is also teeming with data. It is a gigantic environment of information that spans one of the longest and emerging navigable routes ever possible though the northernmost oceans. Data on weather and  tides, maps and prior ‘voyages of discovery’ were central to the early western attempts to find and sail through the North East Passage. Since then, in the 21st century the drive to find a shorter, more economical and alternate northern route – to sailing the Suez Canal or around the Cape of Good Hope – has become part of President Putin’s plans for an ambitious Arctic trade future. In 2020 a Belgian ship sailed through their passage without full permission: now one needs total clearance from Russia.

We elaborate on these and related matters in other posts: for sure the NSR is filled with data from satellites and on and from ships that are filled with sensing and navigation technologies. Vessels are tracked and mapped and tagged, such as via Kystverket’s (Norwegian Coastal Administration) centre in Vardø we visited, for their cargoes and en route to destinations and wider dispersal of goods to markets and consumers.

This is also a highly militarised and nuclear zone, not only one concerning climate and change, geo-politics or safety and security. It is aso a zone where technologies and deep time are connected as icebreakers open the seas and nuclear powered submarines and a floating nuclear power station are part of a longer and long term legacy of arctic development.

What would we be able to find out and how might what we encountered help us understand and appreciate? In what ways might we be able to engage others artistically in seeing the NSR as a choreographic landscape of climate change and global transformation by virtue of movement? What might preferred and projected futures and actual rapid changes mean when seen in relation to one another?  How might narrative and irony be deployed to create critical engagement?

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Østreng, W., Eger, K., Fløistad, B., Jørgensen-Dahl, A., Lothe, L., Mejlænder-Larsen, M. &  Wergeland, T. (2013). Shipping in Arctic Waters: A comparison of the northeast, northwest and trans polar passages. Heidelberg: Springer.

Savitzky, S. (2016). Icy Futures: Carving the Northern Sea Route. PhD Thesis. Lancaster: Lancaster University.

Vakhtin, N. (2019). ‘Sovetskaya Arktika journal as a source for the history of the Northern Sea Route’. Acta Borealia. A Nordic Journal of Circumpolar Societies, 36(1): 53-74.


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