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Ice melt to expand Arctic shipping by midcentury

Loss of sea ice due to global warming could open new seasonal shipping lanes through the Arctic Ocean by midcentury, sharply reducing transit times and opening a Pandora’s box of safety, environmental and legal issues, according to scientists.

In a paper published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Plus, researchers estimated that new shipping lanes linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans are likely to open between 2040 and 2059. The lanes would not be open year-round, however, and would likely be restricted to late summer, when ice cover is lowest.

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Lead study author Laurence Smith, a professor of Earth and space sciences at UCLA, and colleagues examined current Arctic shipping routes as well as a number of global warming models in making their forecast.

Since 1979, satellite mapping has shown an overall decrease in the extent of summer sea ice, which scientists attribute to an increase in man-made greenhouse gases.

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While climatologists have speculated that this trend may result in widespread Arctic Ocean shipping, this is the first study to make an prediction as to when that might occur.

Authors wrote that ships with reinforced hulls would have a choice of two new routes: directly over the North Pole and along the fabled Northwest Passage, skirting Canada’s northern coastline. 

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Already, commercial vessels have begun using the Northeast Passage, or what the Russians call the Northern Sea Route, which hugs the coast of the Russian Federation.

While reduced ice cover will likely increase shipping along the Russian coast, a seasonal route over the North Pole would be 20% shorter, and not require the hiring of Russian escort ships, authors wrote.

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The North Pole Route and the Northeast Passage would provide the shortest distance between Europe and Asia, and allow ships to bypass the traditional Suez Canal route.

However, the Northwest Passage, along Canada’s shore, would not benefit European and Asian trade. Instead, it would link Asia to Eastern Canada and the Northeastern United States. 

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 Currently, the Northwest Passage is theoretically navigable once every seven years, making it an impractical trade route. By midcentury, however, researchers predicted that it would be accessible roughly every other year.

Study authors noted that the mere feasibility of Arctic routes did not guarantee their heavy use. 

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“These results reflect conditions for peak late-summer (September) shipping season only, and are driven solely by projected reductions in sea ice thickness and concentration,” authors wrote.

“Although sea ice currently represents the single greatest obstacle to trans-Arctic shipping, numerous additional factors, including dearth of services and infrastructure, high insurance, escort fees, unknown competitive response of the Suez and Panama Canals, poor charts and other socioeconomic considerations, remain significant impediments to maritime activity in the region.”

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