Ships to Cruise Over North-Pole And Arctic Ocean by 2050

First Posted: Mar 04, 2013 11:55 PM EST

Thanks to accelerating global warming, commercial shipping could become much cheaper by having ships cruise right over the north pole, which is the fastest route to transport goods between Asia and Europe, the two largest economic blocks in the world. The warming climate is expected to open new sea routes, including the infamous Northwest Passage for the US East Coast leg, through what is now impenetrable ice, a study reported on Monday.

Other than being faster and cheaper, avoiding the Suez or Panama canals also has the advantage that super-large ships can take this shorter route--but most of the time only in the arctic summer when most of the sea ice is melted.

But increasingly warm temperatures also could make  north of Canada an economically viable shipping route. Now, it is passable only at the end of most summers. It could also open up a route directly over the North Pole by mid-century,

Both the Northwest Passage north of Canada and the Northern Sea Route, which mostly hugs Russia's northern coastline and is now a primary Arctic shipping route, will become increasingly viable very soon, according to research by Laurence Smith, a geography professor at the University of California-Los Angeles.

The transit across the Arctic would remain highly seasonal, limited to parts of September when the ice has shrunk and thinned to its lowest level, according to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Plus.

The U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center made headlines last September when it reported Arctic sea ice melted to its lowest recorded level ever. The Arctic is one of the fastest-warming places on Earth because of the so-called albedo effect, where sun-reflecting ice is frequently replaced by sun-absorbing dark-colored water.

"Last year, nearly 50 ships went through the Northern Sea Route, but this work shows that there will be other technically feasible options which will be available," he said.

The across-the-pole route, which had never before been considered, would be available only in 2050 and only to light ice-breakers capable of plowing through ice 1.2 meters thick.

And the Northwest Passage is currently navigable only one out of seven years, on average, making it too unreliable to be a viable option for commercial shippers, the researchers said. But by mid-century, sea ice will melt in September to the point that it is accessible every other year, on average.

To arrive at their predictions, Smith and Stephenson studied these emerging shipping routes and the degree of ice melt that has made them possible. They then took the results from seven respected forecasts for the sea ice cover in the Arctic and averaged predictions for the extent of the Arctic ice sheet in September, historically the month when the ocean has the least amount of ice coverage, for every year between 2040 and 2059.

The researchers factored in two scenarios for climate change: one that assumed a 25 percent increase in global carbon emissions, which is generally expected to produce a medium-low increase in temperatures, and one that assumed an additional 10 percent increase in emissions, which is expected to produce a higher increase in temperatures. To their surprise, changes in accessibility were similarly dramatic under both scenarios.  

"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," Smith said.

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