Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Look at This: Map of Future Arctic Shipping Routes

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 present years (left) and in future (right).  Image courtesy Laurence C. Smith and Scott R. Stephenson/PNAS

The extent of Arctic sea ice has been diminishing since the late 1970s due to climate change, and this decline is predicted to continue in the coming decades. The prospect of open water in these previously icy areas has sparked a lot of speculation about ships being able to navigate between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans through the Northwest Passage or over the North Pole.
Now scientists have analyzed sea ice projections from seven different climate models to come up with an idea of what our shipping routes might look like by midcentury, which they published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences today. The picture is very different than the one we have now—a boon for commerce with yet-to-be-determined environmental ramifications.
It remains to be seen if the opportunities are sufficient to justify the risks.

UCLA's Laurence C. Smith and Scott R. Stephenson reported the findings on what they're calling "Supra-Polar" routes Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The pair used computer modeling to predict optimal navigation routes for mid-century (2040-2059) between the North Atlantic and the Bering Straight based on seven independent climate models. They restricted their study to September, when Arctic ice is at its minimum. What they found:
  • The Northern Sea Route (NSR) along Russia's coast in the eastern Arctic Ocean—the only viable trans-Arctic shipping route today—will continue to become more navigable. The NSR will open up to more ordinary open-water ships without reinforced hulls (the vast majority of shipping vessels in use today), and optimal routes from the North Atlantic will shift northward away from Russia's coast and out of its territorial jurisdiction.
  • The Northwest Passage (NWP), which today is littered with some 50,000 giant icebergs up to 300 feet tall, will open, reducing by 30 percent the distance for vessels traveling to and from North America compared to the NSR. It will be the optimal late-summer route for Polar Class 6 vessels (lightweight icebreakers used in the Baltic states today) 100 percent of the time and for ordinary open-water ships much of the time. "This is a surprise because the NWP has always been less navigable and more icy than the NSR," Smith says. "It's a very stubborn place." The opening up of the NWP may force Canada, the U.S. and Europe to settle a longstanding dispute over whether the trade route is in Canadian or international waters.
  • The North Pole will become the optimal route for ice-breaking ships traveling to and from Europe as the ice thins, which could pull traffic away from the NSR. Polar Class 6 vessels will "pretty much go wherever they please" in the Arctic by mid-century, Smith says. "At which point, if you're trying to get between the Atlantic and the Pacific, the shortest route is directly over the North Pole."
Although the NWP is the shortest route from northeastern North America to Asia, it will likely never be used for major shipping on trans-Arctic voyages, says Brigham, who is a former icebreaker captain. But, "there will be many future voyages of ships in and out of the Canadian Arctic, likely bulk carriers carrying iron ore to Europe from Baffin Island."
"The driver of most Arctic shipping today and in the future is Arctic natural resource developments—the linkages of Arctic natural resources to global markets," Brigham adds. "Sea ice retreats as observed in the Arctic provide for longer navigation seasons and marine access, but global commodities prices and economics drive the essence of Arctic shipping in the future."
As the Northwest Passage and the North Pole open up, some ships will be able to avoid Russia's Exclusive Economic Zone; Russia charges steep fees for mandatory escorts through this zone. Although navigating through less-regulated international waters could cut costs, Smith says environmental and safety issues will emerge. "It's both exciting and worrisome," he says. "The Arctic is a dangerous place and always will be. The ice will always return in winter. It's dark. It's remote. Let's just say the northern countries are going to have some patrolling, search-and-rescue and security issues on their hands in the coming years."

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