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The Newest Shipping Route Is Over The North Pole

Scientists have known for a long time that Arctic ice would start melting enough to allow boats to pass through, but they’ve just discovered the problem is worse than they thought. At least shipping just got easier?

The Newest Shipping Route Is Over The North Pole

Forget the Suez Canal and the Panama Canal. The new frontier in shipping is through the Bering Strait. In the future, the quickest route from, say, Northern Europe to Japan is likely to be the most direct: right across the North Pole.

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According to a new paper looking at the future of shipping in the Arctic, global warming is set to dramatically open up sea lanes, turning what today is an occasional fair-weather option to something more routine.

The study from researchers at UCLA models the impact of climate change on navigability, looking at how routes have already opened up, and what seven forecasts say will happen over the next 30 years. The paper looks at the period 2040 to 2059, focusing on September–typically the easiest month to go the Arctic route.

“We’re talking about a future in which open-water vessels will, at least during some years, be able to navigate unescorted through the Arctic, which at the moment is inconceivable,” says Scott Stephenson, co-author of the paper, which is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Plus.

Currently, shipping takes the Northwest Passage off the coast of Canada only one year in seven. But by 2050, it should be a viable option half the time, the researchers say, and using less reinforced ships. Similarly, the Northern Sea Route, along the coast of Russia, is also likely to open up substantially. In fact, it already has. Last summer, 46 convoys took the route, which is 40% shorter than going through the Suez Canal.

“By mid-century, changing sea ice conditions enable expanded September navigability for common open-water ships crossing the Arctic along the Northern Sea Route over the Russian Federation, robust new routes for moderately ice-strengthened (Polar Class 6) ships over the North Pole, and new routes through the Northwest Passage for both vessel classes,” the paper says.

The researchers looked at two climate change scenarios predicted by scientists: one for a 25% increase in carbon dioxide, and another for a 35% increase. The results, in terms of sea ice, were broadly similar.

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“No matter which carbon emission scenario is considered, by mid-century we will have passed a crucial tipping point–sufficiently thin sea ice–enabling moderately capable icebreakers to go where they please,” says Lawrence Smith, a professor of geography.

The research once again shows how global warming is likely to be a double-edged sword: benefiting us in some ways (for example, in cheaper shipping), while disadvantaging us in plenty of others. It remains to be seen whether that slow cruise to Yokohama is going to be worth it.

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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