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  • 2019 February 12

    Aleksey Sokov: “We are the largest research fleet owner in the country”

    P.P.Shirshov Institute of Oceanology of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IO RAS) is the largest Russian research center in the field of oceanology. In his interview with IAA PortNews, Aleksey Sokov, Acting Director of IO RAS, told about the plans on construction of conceptually new research vessels able to perform commercial tasks and about processes in the Arctic and southern seas.

    - Mr. Sokov, a plan has been announced on construction of two research vessels to be used by your institute. What research are they to be involved in?

    - We are actually the largest research fleet owner in the country but, unfortunately, our ships are obsolete: all of them are over 30 years old and should be replaced with new ones. The issue of fleet renovation has been under discussion for a long time. There is a federal targeted programme providing for construction of eight new vessels. As of today, the state programme named “Science” and supervised by the Ministry of Education and Science foresees the construction of two research vessels (RV) by 2024.

    They will primarily perform scientific tasks. We conduct a comprehensive research in the ocean: physical, climatic, biological, geological, interdisciplinary ones. 

    - What are your requirements regarding these ships and what are the prospects of their commercial use?

    - Our key requirement is universality, ability to perform all types of up-to-date research works. 

    It has always been a problem to build a ship to meet the demands of both geologists and physicists. Our institute has hosted long debates on this issue. Yet, it is only one of the purposes.

    The other one is associated with the ability of commercial use. In fact, after the collapse of the Soviet Union financing of the scientific fleet was insufficient and we had to earn money throughout the recent 30 years. Scientific fleet is currently idle 80% of time. Therefore, earning resources to maintain our ships and support the crews is a crucial part of our activities. Even today, financing earmarked under the Science programme is not sufficient: RUB 1.3 billion is foreseen for expeditions. Today we are provided with RUB 1 billion for those purposes and that is not enough. Taking into consideration the inflation, we will have the same problem by 2024. So it is reasonable and very important for the institute to have vessels in demand for commercial use. The ships we have today were designed exclusively for research purposes and, economically, feature low demand both in Russia and abroad. Moreover, protectionism measures undertaken in other countries hinder our vessels from being used their as intended.

    With that in mind, we have approved a concept according to which research vessels should be multi-functional that is possible with a modular structure. The superstructure shifted to the fore part of a ship provides free space. The superstructure is to conceptually comprise all the key functions of a research ship: ‘wet’ labs and universal labs, everything ensuring high level of research without special modules. The stern part can accommodate containers for special purposes: meteorological, geophysical, biological, diving etc. The use of such containers is widespread worldwide: foreign scientists working on our ships come with their own containers.

    When a ship is deployed for commercial purposes, these modules are removed. With cranes, launch-and-recovery systems and holds, such ships can be used for commercial purposes.

    - Are there any real agreements on commercial use of those vessels?

    - We have held consultations with Gazprom  and Rosneft and they confirmed their interest in involving our ships. For example, we conduct a research on the Northern Sea Route so we can implement both scientific and commercial tasks there.

    - What ice class will those ships have? What regions worldwide will they be allowed to operate in?

    - They will be assigned Arc4 class and will be able to operate in both polar and equatorial conditions, from the Antarctica to the Arctic. Arc4  is an optimal ice class allowing for a confident work on the lanes of the Northern Sea Route and ensuring high sea-keeping performance in the tropical zone. A higher ice class would not let us work in warm seas which is essential for us as we explore the ocean at all latitudes.

    - Have a designer and a shipbuilder been determined?

    - Not yet. The decision will be made by the Ministry. We are currently in negotiations with several companies including Vyborg Shipyard and Yantar Shipyard. United Shipbuilding Corporation has prepared a presentation for us with their proposals. It is not still clear if there will be a competition or a single company. The Ministry is to decide. On our part, we are looking into all variants.

    Although, there is no a design yet, much work has been done already. We looked for similar designs in western countries, held consultations with the world’s leading shipbuilding companies such as Damen (the Netherlands) and Ulstein (Norway). They came here, studied our design specifications and expressed their interest as our concept suggesting integration of a multipurpose research ship with a ship able to perform commercial tasks is one-of-a-kind in the world. The above-mentioned companies have ready platforms for supply ships and a range of such ships. Taking into account our specifications, they have done a lot to adapt their serial designs to our design. They have made a great progress in it and prepared their proposals. So, we have found foreign designs that can be realized by Russian shipyards. Most of all we like the design of Ulstein. They are currently looking for a Russian shipyard able to implement the project. Meanwhile, Damen has obtained an extensive experience of work in Russia and cooperation with Russian shipyards. They are also searching for a shipbuilding company and are working towards approval of the design adjusted in compliance with our requirements by RS. 

    As for Russian companies, proposals can be developed by Almaz which suggests implementation of a design based on a ship built for the Ministry of Defence by the end of 2019. 

    It should be taken into consideration, that the terms are very tough. The ships should be designed and built within a very short period of time – by 2024. That is complicated with the requirement to have those vessels built by domestic shipyards which have no experience of building ships of that type. Besides, both ships, the lead and the serial one, should be delivered almost simultaneously, with an interval of several months with sanctions imposed upon that.

    The final decision on the design and the shipyard will be made by the Ministry.

    - What about the local content of scientific equipment and shipboard components in those research vessels?

    - By today, we have approved design specifications according to which import substitution requirements should be met as foreseen by a related law. The problem is following: today we today almost all scientific equipment. The situation with shipboard equipment is more complicated. Specific parameters of import substitution will be determined during the designing and selecting of a shipyard. That is a separate challenge, particularly associated with sanctions. 

    Our institute and other institutes have done a big job resulting in a list of scientific equipment we would like to have on our ships. It contains equipment of domestic origin but its share is very low – just 1-2% of the total amount.

    Our priority is to have a ship to meet our purposes and objectives, to feature high seaworthiness and efficiency. That is a task of designing and shipbuilding companies to select shipboard equipment. We cannot impose technical solutions.

    - Could you please tell about the plans on modernization of the Atlantic and the Pacific bases of the scientific fleet?

    - The Pacific base in Vladivostok was handed over to us in 2018. It has berths but, unfortunately, everything is in a deplorable state. There is a quay wall but the facilities are in a state of neglect since there were no investments for many years. So, an extensive reconstruction is expected. In particular, there is a need to replace water treatment facilities, which needs tens of millions of rubles. We have applied for financing.  First, money is needed for designing.

    The Atlantic base is located in Kaliningrad and the situation there is even worse. Here we just rent the berths.  There is actually no base here. Everything should be done from scratch. 

    The scientists say that they need 30-40 container laboratories for different purposes. A ship can accommodate 18 labs maximum. Obviously, most of container labs are to be kept onshore or onboard a different ship. Anyway, a transshipment base is required to ensure normal conditions for keeping state-of-the-art and expensive equipment. Thus, the issue of bases should be solved by 2024, both in Vladivostok and in Kaliningrad since one of the new ships will be homeported in the Far East and the other on the Baltic Sea.

    - What are the expedition plans for 2019?

    - The plan of expeditions has not been approved yet. Delayed approval of the plan by the Ministry is our permanent headache. The planning process continues throughout the year and now, in the beginning of February, we still have no approved plan. According to the draft plan, an expedition should venture out from the Vladivostok base in February and from the Kaliningrad base in April-May. However, the state task has not been signed yet, which means that no competitions can be held or preparation of the ships can be started. We pay salaries to the crews though we have not been formally provided with money for them. 

    This year plans cover, as usual, the Arctic, North Atlantic, Baltic Sea, Black Sea and Far Eastern seas. Such a schedule has been typical during the recent years.

    That is a comprehensive research comprising different ones. For example, we are conducting a unique research in the North Atlantic: it is a multi-year study of water exchange between the Atlantic and the Arctic oceans. It is a unique climatic research covering geological and biological aspects.

    In the Russian Arctic, on the Northern Sea Route, we conduct some comprehensive research covering the aspects of ecology, bioproductivity, geophysics (methane, geological studies), bottom sediments, hazardous facilities.

    In the Baltic Sea and in the Black Sea – integrated monitoring of ecosystems.

    The new activity of the institute is the research in the Far East covering chemical, physical, geological, climatic aspects, that is a comprehensive exploration of the global ocean.

    - There is much discussion of the forecasted warming in the Arctic, on the Northern Sea Route. What are the findings of your institute in this respect?

    - That is a challenging issue. The warming is a fact. The areas where we could not break through earlier are easily reached today. But there is no unambiguous answer to why that happened. None of the models gives a certain forecast. For example, what are the findings at the 60th degree?  There is no trend: throughout the instrumental observation period started in 1957-58 the changes have been seen in both directions. We cannot say that the warming is caused by the Gulf Stream fluctuations Гольфстрима or the Atlantic impact. How does the warming in the Arctic depends on the water exchange with the Atlantic ocean? Is it the only factor and what is going on in the atmosphere? That is not clear yet. Statements about long period of warming in the Arctic are just speculations. Since there is no a trend influence from the Atlantic we either have a surface effect (warming of surface layers) or there are other factors.  That is why permanent monitoring is required. Perhaps, warming in the Arctic is local, not a part of a global process.

    - What is the situation in the Black Sea?

    - We have a branch with very good specialists in the Black Sea basin. 

    In general, this region is facing problems with hydrogen sulphide and cold intermediate layer. There are many unsolved problems. Yet, it should be noted that our scientists have made a significant discovery on penetration of whirls from the Mediterranean by water exchange caused by storms. Earlier it was believed to be a local problem of the Black Sea.

    We cannot say there are any global processes in the Black Sea. 

    - Which seas are facing hazardous processes?

    - There are situations with transition of organisms from some seas to the others. In some cases that leads to ecosystem dysfunctions. It is a great challenge indeed and our scientists are involved in handling of this problem as well. For example, the population of king crab has boosted in the Kara Sea with an impact on its ecosystem. That was found due to our Institute’s research held throughout several year in the same areas with the same methods. The bottom fauna pictures have changed over five years. There is nothing but crab there today. Obviously, they have appeared there for man-caused reasons. Crab larvae were carried by ships in ballast waters (The International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships' Ballast Water and Sediments came into force in September 2017 – Ed.).

    About the new ships:

    According to the design specifications, new research vessels are to have speed of up to 15 knots, cruising range of at least 14,000 miles, endurance of 60 days, crew of 35 members, expedition personnel - 65. The ship is to have a workboat, two cranes of 30 tonnes in capacity each. The ship it to be fitted with a scrubber to comply with MARPOL requirements.

    Interviewed by Vitaly Chernov