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Melting Arctic Untying New Shipping Routes

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Arctic shipping routes:

Arctic shipping routes are the maritime paths used by vessels to navigate through parts or the entirety of the Arctic.

To connect the Atlantic with the Pacific, theNorthwest Passage goes along the Northern Canadian and Alaskan coasts, theNortheast Passage follows the Russian and Norwegian coasts, and theTranspolar Sea Route crosses the Arctic through theNorth Pole. 

The amount of sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean has declined sharply each decade since the 1980s, according to measurements taken each September when the ice is at its minimum. Older, thicker ice is disappearing as well. Scientists say global warming is largely responsible for the changes. Parts of the Arctic are warming twice as fast as elsewhere. 

 

Effect Of Global Warming

As global warming melts sea ice across the Arctic, shipping routes once thought impossible — including directly over the North Pole — may open up by midcentury. But high costs may keep the new routes from being used right away. 

The changing conditions offer an opening to shipping companies. The Arctic is potentially a faster, more direct route between Asia and ports in Europe and eastern North America. 

 Currently, there is relatively little cargo shipped through the region. Although shipping will increase over the next decade, especially as Russia develops oil and gas fields in Siberia, total Arctic cargo tonnage is expected to remain only a small fraction of the amount carried along southern routes through the Suez and Panama canals. 

But with “middle of the road” warming — higher than the 2015 Paris accord target but lower than the most extreme climate change forecasts — more Arctic shipping routes could open, both for ordinary ships and those that are built to move through the thicker ice. Even direct over-the-pole routes would potentially be navigable, at least during some part of the summer-fall shipping season. 

 

Ship-Based Research

More recently, there has been an increase in ship-based research in the Northwest Passage and the Beaufort Sea, attributable to concern over the effects of climate change in arctic marine ecosystems, culminating in more research efforts during the International Polar Year. 

From the 1980s on, voyages through the Passage have become an annual event. The number of transits increased from 4 per year in the 1980s to 20-30 per year in 2009-2013. These transits are mostly completed by icebreakers on coast guard and research duties, small vessels or adventurers, passenger ships offering Arctic tourism opportunities, and tug and supply vessels, some with barges. Other types of ships completing the passage include oil/fuel tankers, drill ships, seismic vessels, cable vessels, and buoy tenders. A great portion of the increase in transits since the late 1980s is due to an increase in shipping activities by tug supply vessels--half of them with icebreaking capacity--involved in the oil and gas industry in the Beaufort Sea.

“We know what is likely to happen to sea ice,” said Nathanael Melia, one of the researchers at the University of Reading in Britain who calculated how the routes might change as warming continues to the middle of the century. “It will reduce decade on decade, and open up vast swaths of the Arctic Ocean.”

As Arctic routes become more direct, voyage times could fall to less than three weeks in some cases, making Arctic shipping potentially more attractive than the southern routes in coming decades, Dr. Melia’s research shows. 

people.hofstra.edu.png

Other costs including higher insurance rates, as well as safety considerations, may deter other efforts. A report last year by Copenhagen Business School concluded that trans-Arctic shipping by ordinary vessels between Europe and Asia was unlikely to become economically viable before 2040.

Just because shippers could make greater use of Arctic routes does not necessarily mean they will. Ice conditions will still vary greatly from year to year, which would discourage shipping companies for which precise timing of shipments is crucial.

 

The Environmental Point of View

Well, From an environmental point of view, Arctic shipping poses a threat to the region’s unique ecosystems. This threat can be effectively mitigated through careful planning and effective regulation in areas of high risk.

There are certain areas in the Arctic region that are of heightened ecological significance, many of which will be at risk from current and/or increased shipping. Many of these areas are located in geographically restrictive locations or chokepoints where much shipping activity also occurs, such as the Bering Strait, Hudson Strait, Lancaster Sound, Pechora Sea and the Kara Port.

Migratory marine mammals such as bowhead, beluga, narwhal and walrus have wintering areas in the southern extent of the sea ice and spring migration routes into the Arctic through systems of leads and polynyas also used by many seabirds, ducks and other marine birds during spring migration. These migration corridors correspond broadly to the current main shipping routes and travel through geographic chokepoints. 

end-summer-melt-1979-2007.jpg

The black carbon emitted from shipping in the Arctic could have significant regional impacts by accelerating ice melt.

Ship emissions including greenhouse gasses (GHGs), Nitrogen Oxides (NOx), Sulfur Oxides (SOx) and Particulate Matter (PM) may have negative effects on the Arctic environment and will increase in the Arctic region proportionately with increased shipping activity. Effective reduction of ship emissions can be achieved through the application of feasible and best available technologies, through air emissions reduction techniques and, most importantly, through effective implementation of relevant IMO regulations.

It will be decades before big cargo ships link China and northern Europe by taking a shortcut through theArcticOcean, a report predicts.

Climate change, retreating summer ice and the prospect of shorter journey times and 40% lower fuel costs has led Russia, European governments, and some industries to expect a major ice-free shipping lane to open above Russia, allowing regular, year-long trade between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans within a few years.

But, says the Copenhagen Business School in a new paper, low bunker fuel prices, a short sailing season and continuing treacherous ice conditions in the Arctic even in summer months means it could be 2040 at the earliest before it is commercially viable for ordinary merchant ships to pass through what is known as the northern sea route.

Until then it will remain cheaper to send trade between Europe and the east via the Suez canal, it says.  

 

 Let us know your views regarding Ship emissions and New Arctic Routes

 

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References:

  • NY-times
  • The Guardian
  • enr.gov.nt
  • Wikipedia
  • Blog Image: otkn_515_hapnow_arcticicelow_web_1280
  • Article Images: people.hofstra.edu and end summer melt 1979-2007

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