The melting of the sea ice in the arctic at a faster rate than forecast has meant that people have already been developing routes through Canada’s Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route above the coast of Russia. Such routes would significantly lessen the amount of time and fuel — as much as 18 days and 580 tons of bunker fuel — currently needed to transport goods between Asia and both Europe and North America. Shipowners could save hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Emphasizing how much the thickness and extent of late summer has shrunk in just the past seven years, UCLA geographers Laurence C. Smith and Scott R. Stephenson predict (via computer modeling) that, by 2050, ordinary vessels and some that are only moderately ice-strengthened — equipped to break through the ice — should be able to pass over the North Pole and most likely in September, when the sea ice is at its smallest extent.
Last year, 46 ships went through the trans-Arctic passage. To do so, they had to be accompanied by ice-strengthened ships from Russia at a considerable cost. The moderately ice-strengthened ships are known as Polar Class 6 or PC6 vessels. As John Timmer explains on Ars Technica, PC6 vessels are specifically built to “withstand transit through first-year ice (ice that froze during the previous winter).”
Under current climate prediction models, the sea ice will have melted so much that, by mid-century, PC6 vessels can use the Northern Sea Route in any year. Ships will be able to go directly over the pole from Europe to Asia annually, on a route that is shorter from those going through the Suez or Panama canals.
Increase in Shipping Over the North Pole Puts the Arctic At Risk
As Wired UK points out, this is a fabulous develop for commercial shipping and for companies wanting to explore and harness the yet-untapped natural resources — oil — of the Arctic.
But there’s no question that all this could spell simple disaster for the unique ecosystems of the Arctic and the rich wildlife, animal and plant, that lives there. Earlier studies have already shown that an increase in arctic shipping poses a risk to marine mammals and would also affect the local communities who rely on these animals for food security and cultural identity.
In addition, Smith and Stephenson note that the opening of the Arctic for shipping could spell geopolitical conflict among Russia, Canada, the U.S. and other countries, reopening disputes about boundaries and territory.
The scientists emphasize that we need to start now to develop “comprehensive international regulations that provide adequate environmental protections, vessel safety standards and search-and-rescue capability.” Rampant development of industries using fossil fuels has already warmed up our planet by degrees never imagined. Knowing how human activity has destroyed and is damaging wildlife and the environment, we need to start now to create responsible regulations to preserve the resources, beauty and life of the Arctic, which is, as Smith says, “a fragile and dangerous place.”
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