Global Warming Affects Polar Ice Caps: New Shipping Routes To Be Created As Melting Continues

By Philip Ross on March 5, 2013 1:15 PM EST

Polar Ice Melt
The disappearing ice at Earth's North Pole will create new opportunities for shipping vessels traveling between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. (Photo: Reuters)

Global warming, and the subsequent melting of Earth's polar ice caps, will fortuitously affect Arctic shipping routes.  

A new study by scientists from the University of California at Los Angeles indicates that by as early as 2040 to 2050, previously impassable areas of the Arctic Ocean will be open to ordinary shipping vessels, which will be able to navigate the Arctic waters unescorted by icebreaking ships. The researchers, led by Laurence C. Smith, a professor of geography at UCLA, published their findings in the latest issue of the scholarly journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Plus on Monday. This is the first thorough analysis of trans-Arctic shipping potential.

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For centuries, sea ice has prevented shipping vessels from taking the shortest route between Asia and North American or Europe. Right now, the Northern Sea Route, which hugs the Arctic coast of Russia, is the most heavily-trafficked highway between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, but even parts of this are ice-free for only two months per year. On the other side of the Arctic, bordering the U.S. and Canada, is The Northwest Passage, one of the most legendary and dangerous sea routes in the world and currently the most direct route to and from Asia. This, too, offers only a small window of opportunity for travel: The passage is navigable just one out of seven years, on average.

In recent years, however, global warming has caused the ice around the North Pole to melt in late summer to such an extent that ordinary ships, with the aid of icebreaking vessels, have been able to use the Northern Sea Route more regularly. As the UCLA study indicates, a total of 46 ships successfully made the trip last summer.   

Co-author of the study Scott R. Stephenson of the UCLA Department of Geography said that the idea of going across the Arctic right now without the assistance of icebreaking vessels is "inconceivable." But, as demonstrated in their research, that prospect is no longer so farfetched.

Like the Panama Canal did for trade in the 20th century, a route directly over the North Pole would significantly truncate the time it takes to travel between North America or Europe and Asia -- traveling directly across the North Pole is 20 percent shorter than the Northern Sea Route. Furthermore, the opening up of these waters would save massive amounts of time, money and fuel for shipping companies, and could even create opportunities for economic growth for the Inuit living in the Arctic region.

As part of their research, the scientists at UCLA looked at independent climate forecasts for the years 2040 to 2059. The overall anticipated temperature increase by 2050 is between 3.6 and 6.2 degrees Fahrenheit, and even more dramatic increases in the winter -- between 7.2 to 10.8 degrees.

With the potential for new and shorter routes across the Arctic also come concerns both political and logistical. For one, "Ships need updated charts with precise and accurate measurements," Capt. Doug Baird, chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coast Survey's marine chart division, told USA Today.

Also, while most of the Arctic Ocean is controlled by five countries -- the US, Canada, Russia, Denmark and Norway -- the North Pole is considered international waters. New shipping lanes would need to be regulated, and countries will undoubtedly want to claim sovereignty over these new passages as a way to impose regulations in their favor. As the UCLA study indicates, the lack of current regulations poses safety, environmental and legal issues that will need to be addressed.

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