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Melting sea ice opening new trade routes in Arctic

Global warming and thinning sea ice could open up new shipping lanes throughout the Arctic Ocean.

“This development is both exciting from an economic development point of view and worrisome in terms of safety, both for the Arctic environment and for the ships themselves, said Laurence C. Smith, a professor of geography at the University of California – Los Angeles.

According to findings from the U.C.L.A., global warming will make the Arctic shipping lanes more accessible by melting an unprecedented amount of sea ice during the summer.

The U.C.L.A. study assessed the impact of rising global temperatures on shipping lanes based on independent climate forecasts for the years 2040 to 2059.

They factored in two scenarios for climate change: one that assumed a 25 percent increase in global carbon emissions and one that assumed an additional 10 percent increase. 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,” said Mr. Smith.

They found that, by mid-century, even ordinary shipping vessels will be able to navigate previously inaccessible parts of the Arctic Oceans with no further need for icebreakers to blaze a path.

The Arctic ice sheet is also expected to thin to the point that polar icebreakers will be able to navigate between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans over the North Pole.

This unprecedented development, a route directly over the North Pole, would be 20 percent shorter than today’s most-trafficked Arctic shipping lane, the Northern Sea Route which hugs the coast of Russian.

“Nobody's ever talked about shipping over the top of the North Pole,” said Mr. Smith.

“This is an entirely unexpected possibility.”

Arctic sea ice has been declining rapidly these past few decades in both volume (see related story) and size (see related story).

With its decline, the new navigation routes that are expected to open up could benefit the shipping industry – allowing companies to sidestep escort fees and other regulations, but this lack of regulations pose safety, environmental and legal issues that have yet to be resolved.

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, said the researchers. – EcoSeed Staff

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