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No. 4, 2012

Alexander Matveichuk ,
Ph. D. (History), Member, the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences


On the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the Northern Sea Route and the 30th anniversary of the worlds first oil field discovered in the Arctic

This year, the Russian Arctic community is marking two major events: 80 years ago, the Chief Directorate of the Northern Sea Route was established by a resolution of the Soviet government to address the issue of developing vast uninhabited expanses in the Arctic, including intensive exploration and development of the mineral resources of the polar region. Several decades of oil and gas prospecting in the Russian Arctic culminated in the discovery of the first polar oil field at Kolguyev Island in the Barents Sea in 1982.

Arctic prologue of the Polar Commission

Russian seafarers and researchers have always been fascinated by exploring the Arctic. Russia's polar explorers made a lot of magnificent discoveries putting their names into the county's history of the 18th-19th centuries. However, a real scientific breakthrough in the region occurred between 1900 and 1930. There was a truly remarkable event which, due to fierce battles of World War I, went virtually unnoticed. In September 1915, the Russian Academy of Sciences established a Polar Commission to coordinate Arctic research efforts of various departments. The first Commission Chairman was infantry general Grand Prince Konstantin Romanov (1858-1915), member of the Russian royal family. The Commission included Academicians Vladimir Vernadsky (1863-1945), Alexander Karpinsky (1847-1936), Oscar Backlund (1946-1916), Ivan Borodin (1847-1930), Nikolay Andrusov (1861-1924), Boris Golitsyn (1862-1916), Director of the Geological Committee Prof. Karl Bogdanovich (1864-1947) and many renowned Russian scientists whose scientific and social status could be instrumental in Arctic exploration. Famous Russian geologist Innokenty Tolmachev (1872-1950) was elected Academic Secretary of the Commission. At their first session on January 25, 1916, the Commission members discussed the future of Russia's northernmost radio station on Dickson Island and decided to keep it in service - also as a meteorological outpost. The meteorological data it supplied were used also for drawing up top-secret weather maps for the Russian Army and Navy by the Nicholas Main Physical Observatory. During the next few months, the Commission started putting together a large-scale Arctic exploration program and had two more productive sessions but the timeless demise of its Chairman in June 1915 put their efforts on hold. On October 18, 1916, the Polar Commission met to elect famous Russian scientist, Academician Alexander Karpinsky as its Chairman.

The fall of tsarist autocracy and the change of the system of government in February 1917 encouraged the Polar Commission to take certain steps and draw the new government's attention to the need of continuing Arctic exploration. In March 1917, the Commission members met to determine the role of science in the new political environment and write a petition to the Provisional government offering to use their expertise and experience in Arctic exploration to the benefit of the motherland. Six months later, the October 1917 coup shook Petrograd and the Bolshevik government under Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) came to power in Russia, which, according to Academician Alexander Karpinsky "not only interfered with the quiet academic work of the country and the  Commission but also affected the purely formal aspects of our activities...." The Civil War engulfed the whole of Russia and its northern parts in particular, effectively isolating the Commission from its key area of interest. The Commission members had to confine themselves to analyzing the findings of previous expeditions.

The success story of the Northern Sea Route

After the end of the Civil War, the Soviet government had come to realize the need for Arctic development. Hence its decree of March 10, 1921 establishing a specialized entity - Floating Marine Research Institute. The keynote was to integrate comprehensive Arctic research with the development of the Northern Sea Route, which was of utmost practical value as a vital transport link between the Soviet European North and Far East. Following the preparation stage, the USSR government issued, on April 15, 1926, a resolution to formalize the borders of the Soviet sector of the Arctic as follows: "in the west: meridian 32 degrees 4 minutes 15 seconds East, and in the east: meridian 168 degrees 49 minutes 30 seconds East- a total of 13 million m2. The Arctic Ocean with the adjacent Barents, Kara, Laptev, East Siberian and Chukchi seas". The area totaled nearly 8 million m2 of islands and archipelagoes, wide strips of the tundra that frames the northern end of Eurasia.

The 1930s went down in Soviet history as a period of active Arctic development: the Arctic Ocean's waters were plied by hydrographic vessels and its shores studied by integrated field parties, observations begun by fixed polar stations, and legendary transarctic and North Pole flights made by the Soviet pilots. The Soviet Union wasted no time adding ten new polar stations on the remotest and hard-to-access islands and archipelagoes - Franz Josef Land, Novaya Zemlya, Severnaya Zemlya, New Siberian Islands, Wrangel Island - to the existing ones in 1931. Given the diversity of challenges associated with Arctic development, such as creation of the local transport infrastructure and production facilities, settlement of Northern areas and training of local personnel, supply of the remote regions and local industry development, a huge number of organizations and companies were established to deal with them. Those organizations reported to different government agencies, which often led to overlapping of their functions.

To optimize the management of these organizations and companies the Soviet government issued, on December 17, 1932, a resolution establishing the Chief Directorate of the Northern Sea Route (Glavsevmorput) attached to the USSR Council of People Commissars, along with several territorial departments and a special Far Eastern department in Vladivostok. Prof. Otto Schmidt (1891-1956), Director of the USSR Arctic Institute, was appointed Head of Glavsevmorput. His deputies were Mark Shevelev (1904-1991), in charge of the sea and air transport issues, and Georgy Ushakov (1901-1963), in charge of research work and radio and meteorological services. It is important to note that the 3,500-mile-long Northern Sea Route ran across six seas adjacent to the northern border of the Soviet Union from Novaya Zemlya to the Bering Strait.

The establishment of Glavsevmorput was a milestone in Arctic exploration and development. To ensure safe and regular navigation along the Northern Sea Route they built and sailed new ice-breakers and ice-breaking vessels, put the ice patrol system in place, printed accurate and reliable sea charts, started building polar ports, coal supply bases, lighthouses etc. on the coastline and islands of the Arctic Ocean. In 1935, navigation along the entire Northern Sea Route was officially launched.


On February 13, 1936, the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks) made a decision to mount the first Soviet expedition to the North Pole. On May 21, 1937, the flagship USSR-N-170 aircraft piloted by renowned polar aviator Mikhail Vodopyanov (1899-1980) took off from Rudolf Island carrying Glavsevmorput Head Otto Schmidt and the crew of the future drifting ice station. Shortly thereafter, the plane successfully landed on an ice field near the North Pole. The first Soviet polar expedition "North Pole-1" was led by Ivan Papanin (1894-1986) and included experienced polar radioman Ernst Krenkel (1903-1971), aquatic biologist and oceanologist Petr Shirshov (1905-1953), astronomer and magnitology expert Yevgeny Fedorov (1901-1981). The explorers spent ten heroic months on the drifting ice field, working 10-14 hours a day in an extremely severe environment to collect invaluable data on the Central Arctic. In addition, the expedition members were able to identify the nature of the Central Arctic ice massifs and determine their movement patterns. The polar explorers also gauged the value of magnetic declination near the North Pole and along their drift route, discovered the seabed rise, which at that time was considered the western part of the Nansen threshold. On February 17, 1938, at 70°54' north latitude and 19°48' west longitude the Taimyr and Murmansk icebreaking steamships picked the expedition members and their instruments up from the ice field. Upon return to Moscow all four members of the Arctic expedition became Heroes of the Soviet Union.

Polar endeavors of oil geologists

Opening of the Northern Sea Route created a great opportunity for the Russian geologists to explore the Arctic mineral resources. A special Mining and Geological Division of Glavsevmorput was set up to tackle this challenge. At first, the priority was given to geological prospecting for coal and oil - the fuel resources which the Soviet Arctic fleet needed badly. In the early 1930s, the USSR Arctic Institute mounted, on behalf of the Mining and Geological Division, several expeditions to explore for mineral resources in the regions adjacent to the Northern Sea Route.

In 1934, a geological expedition lead by Mikhail Kudryavtsev conducted a preliminary geological survey of a coal field in Ugolnaya Bay of the Sea of Okhotsk, which turned up six coal beds. Next year, they discovered two more coal fields - Amaamskoye and Algatvaamskoye - within that area. In 1935-1938, Russian geologists surveyed large areas of Northern Siberia and in some cases, they even ventured into the areas far away from the Arctic shoreline, for instance, the Lower Tunguska River basin and the Verkhoyansk Range. They discovered coal fields in the western part of Taimyr and the lower reaches of the Pyasina River, tin in the Yanskaya depression and the Taskhayatakh and Poluosny Ranges in Chukotka, iron ore in the vicinity of the Severnaya River, alluvial gold in the vicinity of the Khandyga and Tara rivers in the eastern part of the Verkhoyansk area.

In 1935, the Nordvik Surveying Team under the leadership of geologist Tikhon Yemelyantsev (1902-1970) was formed to explore for oil and gas in the Nordvik-Khatanga District. Over the course of their very first season in the field, they managed to discover surface oil seepages in the Taimyr Peninsula. During the next field seasons, geologists drilled a series of wells which indicated oil presence. In 1936, the Ust-Yeniseyskaya geological party led by Nikolay Gedroyts (1901-1959) was dispatched to explore the Ust-Yeniseyskaya Depression for oil and gas. During their first season in the field, they found shows of natural flammable gases in the lower reaches of the Yenisey River.

In 1939, Glavsevmorput's geological service was reshuffled, as a result of which the Mining and Geological Division was put in charge of geological survey and its results instead of the All-Union Arctic Institute. Appointment of the experienced geologist, Ivan Belozersky as Head of the Glavsevmorput Mining and Geological Division in 1940 re-filled the sails of the oil and gas geological exploration program, but Nazi Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 changed the agenda dramatically for the polar geologists. The position of the CEO of the Glavsevmorput Mining and Geological Division vacated by Ivan Belozersky who had joined the army was filled by a talented young scientist, Cand. Sc. (Geology and Mineralogy) Leon Grdzelov (1913-1981), a graduate of the Azerbaijan Oil Institute who had gained his experience and forged his expertise at the oil fields of Apsheron and the Volga region.

During the troubled war years, the Arctic geologists strained to increase their input into routing the energy. In 1942, the Ust-Yeniseiskaya geological party drilled Well No. 13-R to discover a gas pool while the next well turned up an oil inflow. The Nordvik Surveying Team also added another feather to their cap by drilling Well No. 102-R where the first crude oil inflow in the Taimyr Peninsula was obtained. During the war, Nikolay Gedroyts, lead specialist of the Mining and Geological Division, did an enormous job by having single-handedly sorted out and analyzed all available, both published and archived, geological data on oil and gas in the Arctic region. The outcome of his titanic effort was the comprehensive evaluation of the oil and gas exploration perspectives within the vast expanse from the northern outskirts of the European part of the USSR to the North-East of the country and the first ever 1:25000 comparative overview map of the oil and gas presence in the Soviet Arctic. In 1950, he published a monograph "Oil and gas presence in the Soviet Arctic," which contained the geological overview of the certain regions and outlined the major principles of Arctic zoning in terms of oil and gas production perspectives based on their geological structure, available information and direct oil and gas indications. In his monograph, Nikolay Gedroits rightfully assumed that the areas adjacent to the Arctic Ocean shoreline were bound to contain large oil and gas basins protruding offshore: the West-Siberian basin, whose northern section is located in the south-western part of the Kara Sea, and the Pechorsky basin located on the Barents Sea shelf.

The Arctic oil sensation of 1982

In 1982, Glavsevmorput celebrated its 50th anniversary. The participants in the jubilee session in Moscow commended the Geological Division on its crucial input into the development of the Northern Sea Route and adjacent areas. It was truly symbolic that the new generation of the Russian geologists marked the anniversary with a special gift - the discovery in Russia's Arctic sector of the first production-size oil field after the seven years of toil by specialists of the Yaroslavneftegazrazvedka geological exploration and drilling trust. The trust's primary objective was to run a massive geological survey of the central and north-western parts of European Russia to discover oil and gas fields. The trust drilled ten stratigraphic wells on islands in the Barents Sea and the Kara Sea, two on Spitsbergen, three on Frantz Josef Land, three on Kolguev Island, one on Bely Island, and one on Sverdrup Island. And soon the expectations of the Russian geologists paid off - on March 8, 1982, they obtained the first Arctic oil inflow from Well No. 1 in the Peschanoozernaya area on Kolguev Island from the depth of 1,972 m. They continued drilling and on March 21, 1982, they achieved an even stronger oil inflow from the depth of 1,558-1,561 m with the well yield of 144 tons per day. In April, they tested gas beds in that well at the depths of 1,476 1,481 m and 1,372-1,374 m and obtained gas condensate flows to the surface at the rate of 27 m3 and 125 m3 per day, respectively. The laboratory testing showed extremely high quality and unique properties of that crude, which contained nearly no salts, water and solids, zero wax and hydrogen sulfur and hence was very easy to refine and produce the highest grade petroleum products. The discovery of the oil field on Kolguev Island was an event of paramount importance for the oil industry because it confirmed the theoretical assumptions of Russian scientists that there were immense oil and gas riches on the Arctic shelf equal to those of the adjacent regions of Western Siberia and the European North.

Five years after, on August 17, 1987, commercial oil production was launched on the island and a week later, the first tanker carrying Kolguev crude oil called at the Soviet port of Kandalaksha. Since then, about 2 million tons of crude oil were produced from the Peschanoozerskoye oil field.

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Oil of Russia, No. 4, 2012
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