Global warming to open new Arctic sea lanes

March 05, 2013

Arctic passage sea lanes.
Optimal September navigation routes for ice-strengthened (red) and common open-water (blue) ships traveling between Rotterdam, The Netherlands and St. John's, Newfoundland in the years 2040-2059. Credit: Image courtesy Laurence C. Smith and Scott R. Stephenson. Click image to enlarge.

Rapidly melting sea ice in the Arctic due to global warming will open new shipping lanes that will speed transit between northern Asia, Europe, Canada and Alaska but unleash new safety, environmental and legal issues, according to scientists writing in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Using climate forecasts for 2040-2059, Laurence Smith and Scott Stephenson of UCLA assess future trans-Arctic shipping potential with rising global temperatures. They find that during summer months, when sea ice extent is at a minimum, some ships may be able to steer directly across parts of the North Pole.

"We're talking about a future in which open-water vessels will, at least during some years, be able to navigate unescorted through the Arctic, which at the moment is inconceivable," said Stephenson in a statement. Polar icebreakers could conceivably make "a straight shot" between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans over the pole.

"Nobody's ever talked about shipping over the top of the North Pole," added Smith. "This is an entirely unexpected possibility."

The researchers estimate that the route directly over the North Pole is 20 percent shorter than today's busiest Arctic shipping lane, the Northern Sea Route, which runs along the coast of Russia.

"For vessels traveling between Rotterdam in the Netherlands and Yokohama, Japan, the Northern Sea Route is already approximately 40 percent shorter than the traditional route through the Suez Canal," according to a press release from UCLA.

However the shipping window will only last a few months. "This will never be a year-round operation," said Smith.

The projections are based on the assumption that global carbon emissions continue to rise. Under one scenario, they used a 10 percent rise in emissions. In the other they assumed 25 percent. Both scenarios are relatively conservative — annual global emissions from fossil fuels have increased more than 10 percent over the past decade.

"No matter which carbon emission scenario is considered, by mid-century we will have passed a crucial tipping point — sufficiently thin sea ice — enabling moderately capable icebreakers to go where they please," explained Smith.

Melting ice will also open up the region to natural resource extraction, including minerals, oil, gas, and methane hydrates, as well as commercial fishing.

The increase in Arctic activity could have substantial implications beyond commerce however, including the potential for disputes between countries and safety and environmental risks, according to the researchers.

"While attractive to business, the lack of regulations poses safety, environmental and legal issues that have yet to be resolved," states the UCLA news release. "The prospect of open-water ships entering the Arctic Ocean in late summer heightens the urgency for comprehensive international regulations that provide adequate environmental protections, vessel safety standards and search-and-rescue capability."

The authors conclude that the opening of the Arctic passage may push the U.S. to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a move that would potentially benefit its access to new sea lanes.

CITATION: Laurence C. Smith and Scott R. Stephenson. New Trans-Arctic shipping routes navigable by midcentury. PNAS Online Early Edition for the week of Mar 4-Mar 8, 2013

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Global warming to open new Arctic sea lanes.