Arctic sea routes opening up with climate change

Posted: 22 September 2008

Author: Edward Lundquist

A remarkable shipping shortcut is opening up between Europe and Asia, because of the changing global climate. The year-round ice in the Arctic has dramatically diminished, meaning that the Arctic Ocean is now open for ship traffic for at least part of the year. The result is a reduction in the journey between Asia and Europe from 11,500 miles to 6,000 miles - almost half the distance - and a alarming proof that the climate is changing fast.

The newly accessible Arctic is particularily significant for the United States. "Explorers have sought routes through the Arctic for 500 years," said Mead Treadwell, chairman of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission.

Ice-free Northwest Passage
Ice-free Northwest Passage
NASA's Terra satellite captured this image of the ice-free Northwest Passage, which was ice-free for the first time in September 2007. Click for high resolution image. Credit: NASA
Scientists have documented a recent and steady decrease in multi-year ice. While the Arctic freezes over during the winter, much of the first-year ice melts during the summer. Open water now exists from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic. While this represents a huge cost savings for shipping, Treadwell warns there are significant issues about environmental and bio-diversity protection, safety, security and subsistence for native peoples that must be considered.

And just because a satellite photo shows open water doesn't mean the Arctic offers safe sea lanes for transit. The weather is still unforgiving and the presence of ice in the water - whether large floes or small chunks - can cause catastrophic damage to thin-skinned vessels.

Faster melting

Scientists have known that the multi-year ice is shrinking, but now they are finding that the ice is melting faster than anticipated.

Dr. Richard Spinrad, assistant administrator for oceanic and atmospheric research with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), says an "extraordinary set of observations" confirms that there is a dramatic loss of multi-year ice, occurring at a rate that is exceeding the computer-based predictions. In fact, as the white surface of sea ice is reduced, more solar energy is being absorbed by the dark ocean, which has a cascading effect.

Furthermore, according to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the oldest, thickest ice is confined to a much smaller portion of the Arctic Basin in recent years.

Science and technology play an important role in policy issues. "An ice-diminished Arctic is not an idea, it's a fact," says Dr. Sharon Hays from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

New research will be conducted during the International Polar Year, an international coordinated effort than spans March 2007 to March 2009. There are many global influences that can have an impact on the Arctic climate. The National Science Foundation is funding a variety of observation projects to gather temperature, salinity and circulation data in the Arctic that will validate the predictions, in partnership with science organizations around the world.

The Arctic is dynamic. Canada's Ayles ice shelf, larger than 40 square miles, broke away in August 2005. The 3,000 year-old ice shelf was freed by warmer temperatures and high winds, and is now more than 50 miles west of its origin.

Ecological haven

Access to the Arctic can enable researchers to study more about the flora and fauna there. "Today, the Arctic is an ecological haven," says Navy Rear Adm. Timothy McGee. "Commercial industrial ventures in the Arctic could threaten that."

With more traffic, if only during the summer months when the water is open, there is an increased risk of ship accidents, environmental incidents or security threats. This essentially means a greater operating area for the US Navy and Coast Guard without an increase in ships. "As Americans, you expect your Navy and Coast Guard to be there," McGee said. "We need to plan for it."

McGee admits that expanding the fleet's operating areas to include the Arctic poses problems. There will be an increased demand on the fleet to do what they do. Not only are there operational pressures, but infrastructure and support issues too. "How do you sustain the ships? What bases will you need for aircraft?"

Eight nations

Eight nations have a direct interest in the Arctic, including Russia, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark (which controls Greenland), Iceland, Canada and the United States. Territorial claims may become contentious as resources are discovered on and under the seabed. Recently, Russia symbolically "claimed" some of the Arctic sea floor, from its northern boundaries to the North Pole. When it comes to providing for safety and security of the Arctic, McGee calls for a coalition approach. He sees this as an opening for a very meaningful alliance with Russia and the other Arctic nations.

"We can't look at everything as a threat," McGee said. "We have to look at opportunities." Such cooperation exemplifies the US Navy's emphasis on cooperative engagement with maritime partners.

Vice Adm. John Morgan, Jr., Deputy Chief of Naval Operations is developing a new maritime strategy, built upon the principals of common interests and requirements among maritime nations. "When asked what elements the new maritime strategy should include, chiefs of navies and coast guards replied, 'international cooperation, maritime security, threat and crisis response and information sharing.'"

The concept of a 1,000-ship navy to patrol the seas is based upon the contributions of the many to the collective global security environment. Short season

Northwest passage map
Northwest passage map
Red lines are possible routes for traversing the Northwest Passage. Credit: Geology.com/MapResources.
But even with the opening of the Arctic, it is unlikely that there will be a rush for ships to transit that ocean. According to Douglas Bancroft, director of the Canadian Ice Service, ship traffic in the Canadian Arctic today is typically restricted to the very short open water season between July and September, and involves a relatively low level of shipping, perhaps just 100 voyages a year.

Some of these ships are cruise ships carrying eco-tourists. Most shipping occurs in coastal waterways within and adjacent to the Canadian Arctic islands. Multi-year ice is a significant hazard throughout this season.

"Transits are rare, destination trips more common. They go in. They go out. They don't go through," said Bancroft

Most ships, including naval ships, are not built for sailing in ice-infested waters. Even a modest-sized piece of ice can puncture the hull of a moving vessel. One proposal calls for a terminal to be built at Adak, Alaska, and another in Iceland, so that Asian cargo can be transferred to special ice-strengthened ships at Adak bound for European ports via Iceland, and vice versa.

About half of US seafood by weight comes from Alaskan waters (although that catch is declining), and there is strong evidence that there are significant oil and gas reserves in the remote Arctic region. Using the Arctic as a transit route raises concerns about aids to navigation, communications and navigational safety, said USCoast Guard Rear Adm. Brian Salerno, assistant commandant for policy and planning. Increased traffic will inevitably lead to vessels in distress.

Polar presence requires icebreakers and ice-strengthened vessels' primarily employed in support of polar research and Antarctic resupply operations under the sponsorship of the National Science Foundation. "Even if they worked well, we only have three," Allen said.

"It's in our nation's interest to have two new icebreakers," Allen said.

"Open seas in the Arctic means you have another side of this continent exposed," said retired Adm. Donald Pilling, a former vice chief of naval operations, who was part of a Center for Naval Analyses study on national security and the threat of global climate change. "Between the Canadians and us, there are a handful of ships oriented for the northernmost latitudes. There is not much flexibility or depth there."

This article was kindly supplied by the Population Media Center, based in Vermont USA.

Footnote:

Less ice is predicted in the Arctic this year than in any other year since monitoring began, says WWF which urges the UK Government and other world leaders to take immediate action to reduce emissions.

Dr Martin Sommerkorn, Senior Climate Change Advisor at WWF International's Arctic Programme said this month: "The trend of melting Arctic sea ice is alarming for the rest of the world. The Arctic is a key factor in stabilising the global climate so this is a global problem that demands an immediate and global response."

The continuing loss of older, thicker ice means that the Arctic ice cover has become dramatically younger and thinner this year. The area of ice that is at least five-years-old has decreased by 56 per cent between 1985 and 2007, and this is also the first year that the Northwest Passage, over the top of North America, and the Northeast Passage, over the top of Russia are both free of ice.

There are already signs that species such as polar bears are experiencing negative effects as climate change erodes the ice platform on which they rely. These changes are also affecting the indigenous peoples of the Arctic whose traditional livelihoods depend on healthy ecosystems.

Dr Sommerkorn adds: "Arctic ice is like a mirror, reflecting the sun's heat back into space. As that ice goes, Arctic waters absorb more heat, adding to global warming. Warming of the Arctic will soon release more greenhouse gases from the Arctic that were previously locked in permanently frozen ground."

David Norman, Director of Campaigns at WWF-UK said: "The worrying trend in Arctic sea ice loss provides the clearest evidence yet for the need to decisively tackle climate change now, both at a national and a global level. The coming year will also be crucial for global climate negotiations and we expect to see the Prime Minister driving forward a courageous agenda in the UK and Europe to ensure we achieve a new global deal in Copenhagen in December 2009."