Wednesday, September 07, 2016

What Will Sea Ice Loss Mean for Arctic Shipping?

[A]n Arctic shipping route may soon become a reality.  The decline in sea ice cover means there is now serious speculation over commercial trans-Arctic shipping.

In our new study, recently published in Geophysical Research Letters, we consider whether this will be possible during the 21st century.

Current shipping patterns
[I]n 1869 the opening of the Suez Canal provided shipping companies with a shortcut.  The new route, through the Red and Mediterranean seas, allowed ships to avoid the lengthy and hazardous journey via the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa.

A substantial proportion of the world’s container shipping still uses this route today.  But a passage through the Arctic would be around 40% shorter – potentially reducing journey times even further and saving fuel.

This is one reason why major shipping nations such as China, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea sought – and gained – observer status to the Arctic Council in May 2013, despite their lack of territory in the Arctic Circle.

Data from ship tracking systems suggests that a significant number of vessels are already using the Arctic.  The data reveal that traffic is focused on two main routes:  first, the Northern Sea Route (NSR) – through the Norwegian and Barents seas and along Russia’s northern coast – predominantly for journeys between Europe and Asia.  The second, via the North West Passage (NWP) through the Canadian Archipelago, as a route from the US east coast to Asia without needing the Panama Canal.

Our analysis of routes through the Arctic, based on the observed ice conditions, reveals that the NSR and NWP have only recently become available.

Hypothetical Open Water vessel routes sailing through the September sea ice thickness field for eight recent years from the PIOMAS reanalysis. Routes only plotted when Arctic transits are possible. Four particular points are highlighted, including: 1) M‘Clure Strait – the shortest North American route of the northern-NWP; 2) Amundsen Gulf – the longer southern-NWP; 3) Sannikov Strait, and 4) Vilkitsky Strait. Colour of routes indicates which year it was available to navigate. Inset map shows the main Arctic transit options. (Creit: Dr Nathanael Melia)  Click to Enlarge.
You can see this in the figure right. The main map shows the routes that have hypothetically been sufficiently free of sea ice for ships to navigate during summers between 2007 and 2014. The colors of the routes indicate which year they were open.
Will they be used?
If human greenhouse gas emissions aren’t curbed, global shipping could realistically use Arctic routes without ice-strengthened ships, and take advantage of the substantial distance saving they afford.

If emissions are reduced in line with the Paris Agreement, then the potential for Arctic shipping will still increase, but is more likely to remain a niche market transporting goods to and from the Arctic.

Read more at What Will Sea Ice Loss Mean for Arctic Shipping?

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