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.
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.
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.
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. The researchers found 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.
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. 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.