Field Notes: The Polar Field Services Newsletter

Study foresees big spike in Arctic shipping by mid-century due to climate change melting polar ice


A story in the March 5 edition of Canada’s National Post forecasts unprecedented open Arctic shipping routes by 2050. Below is the text of the story. Click here for a link to the online news story.

Two UCLA researchers using a series of climate-change forecasting models to generate their data have concluded that the polar region will become “much more accessible than ever imagined,” and that the expected spike in ship traffic in the coming decades will add greater urgency to efforts by Canada and the U.S. to resolve their longstanding jurisdictional disagreement over the main transit corridors through Canada’s Arctic islands.

“Studies like this suggest that will have to move forward,” UCLA geographer Laurence C. Smith, co-author of the study, told Postmedia News.

Smith is also the author of the 2010 book The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization’s Northern Future, which predicted that Canada will emerge as a major world power by the middle of the 21st century as climate change transforms global trade, agriculture and geopolitics, elevating the status of so-called “Northern Rim” nations.

His latest study, co-authored with fellow UCLA geographer Scott Stephenson, appears in the March issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Plus. The researchers measured the probability of clear sailing in Arctic waters between the years 2040 and 2059 and mapped the likeliest routes that would be usable by both icebreakers and more ordinary “open-water vessels” during the month of September — the time of year when the annual summer ice retreat is greatest.

Their scenarios show that by mid-century, the principal shipping lane through Canadian waters will become the Parry Channel that runs between the north end of Baffin Island in Nunavut and the north side of Banks Island in the Northwest Territories.

While that’s still essentially a non-navigable corridor at this point — even at the height of the record-setting thaws of recent summers — the channel is expected to be routinely clear enough by 2050 to accommodate an ever-increasing number of voyages by icebreakers and “common open-water ships,” the findings show.

Thick red and blue lines on the researchers’ mid-century map illustrate the expected flow of icebreakers and regular open-water ships through the Canadian channel.

The study, titled “New Trans-Arctic shipping routes navigable by mid-century,” is described as “the first thorough assessment of trans-Arctic shipping potential as global temperatures continue to rise” in the age of climate change.

HandoutArctic map by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) shows shipping routes.

While Canada and other Arctic nations have taken some steps to prepare for an expected increase in northern shipping — including a kind of mutual assistance agreement for search-and-rescue operations — many observers are concerned that tourist traffic and economic development in an increasing accessible polar realm will outpace regulatory regimes aimed at limiting environmental damage and preventing shipwreck tragedies.

“The 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,” Smith said in a summary of the study released on Monday.

Among the study’s findings is that sea ice will eventually become so thin and weak in the central Arctic Ocean that icebreakers will be able to carry out voyages in “a straight shot over the North Pole” instead of merely hugging the coastlines of North America or Eurasia.

“Nobody’s ever talked about shipping over the top of the North Pole,” Smith stated. “This is an entirely unexpected possibility.”

In the interview, he said: “Will the Northern Sea Route or the North Pole route become appealing for container ships bringing Ikea furniture from China to New York? I’m more dubious about that.”

But with the emergence, he added, of “reliable shipping access” between Arctic-based resource sites and key markets, “even for only a few weeks or months out of the year, now it becomes very attractive to pull out LNG – liquefied natural gas – nickel and the other kinds of commodities that China, in particular, and the developing world needs.”

Smith said the adoption of a “mandatory polar code” under the auspices of the International Maritime Organization will become key to establishing safe-shipping regimes in the Arctic.

“If anything, I fear this place will become more dangerous rather than less because of the temptation that this retreating ice is going to present,” he said.

In the research overview, the Northwest Passage is described as “theoretically navigable only one out of seven years, on average, making it too unreliable to be a viable option for commercial shippers” at the present time.

But by 2050, Smith and Stephenson conclude, “sea ice will melt in September to the point that it is accessible every other year, on average.”

At that point, the decision about whether to send a ship through the passage “will become a coin toss,” Smith stated.

Visions of an increasingly accessible Arctic shipping sphere are clouded somewhat by a recent Canadian study that predicts more frequent and intense storm-surge activity along Canada’s Arctic Ocean coast as greater swaths of open water promote stronger wind and wave activity.

“Recent declining summer sea ice extent over the Arctic Ocean, a climatic shift driven by rising air temperatures, is causing surface winds to have increased contact with the ocean waters, in turn increasing the size of surface waves,” states an overview of the study, led by Carleton University scientist Jesse Vermaire and published in the latest issue of the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

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