Safe Passage

The decline in sea-ice cover caused by climate change could open new Arctic shipping routes, including a passage over the North Pole, scientists predict.

The amount of Arctic sea ice in the late summer has been declining for more than three decades. Ice may disappear almost completely from the area for part of the year, raising the possibility that boats could soon navigate shorter routes between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

In a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers ran simulations to determine which shipping routes would become available to vessels within the next five decades. The team focused on ships crossing the Arctic Ocean in September, when sea ice is at its lowest levels.

The chances that an open-water ship could traverse a passage called the Northern Sea Route will rise from a historical value of about 40 percent to 94-98 percent by 2040-2059, the team predicts. And “unprecedented” routes will open up for ice-breaking vessels, including one passage “directly over the North Pole,” the authors write.

The study accounted only for climate projections and not for economic or legal factors. If those barriers also are overcome, countries will need to develop regulations to protect the Arctic environment from the effects of the new traffic, the researchers say. Roberta Kwok | 4 March 2013

Source: Smith, L.C. and S.R. Stephenson. 2013. New Trans-Arctic shipping routes navigable by midcentury. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences doi: 10.1073/pnas.1214212110.

Image © Dmitry Kulagin |