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Courtesy of the University of California at Los Angeles.

Global warming is expected to open up a shipping route through the North Pole between 2040 and 2059, UCLA scientists say. Image to the left shows current Arctic shipping routes using the North Sea along the coast of Russia. The image at right shows predicted shipping lanes, including a late summer passage through the North Pole mapped by the straight red line. 


Global warming could route ships through the North Pole

by Neel Tandan
March 06, 2013


Arctic_2012

NASA

Arctic sea ice reaches a record low level in September 2012 as shown in the image above. Compare to sea ice levels in 1984, shown below.

Arctic_1984

NASA

arctic ice chart 3

NeelTandan/MedillNewsService

In September 2012, Arctic sea ice levels reached a record low since satellite monitoring began in 1979

Global warming is cutting a shipping route directly through the North Pole, according to a recent study by UCLA scientists. The route should open by mid-century at latitude 90 degrees north, though only for part of the year.

Laurence C. Smith, atmospheric scientist and professor of Earth and Space sciences at the University of California at Los Angeles, and Ph.D. student Scott Stephenson, co-authored the study showing a navigable route through the Arctic in the month of September when ice levels are at there lowest levels. The route might not be open other months of the year or available every year.

The study appears in the latest issue of the scholarly journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Plus.”

Stephenson said the study takes a new angle on climate change in the Arctic. The new routes could have significant impacts on the shipping industry, he said. “This is a minor silver lining in a much bigger problem.” 

The passage through the North Pole is 20 percent shorter than today’s quickest Arctic shipping lane that uses the Northern Sea Route along the coast of Russia.

“We’ve looked at this in terms of ice thickness and volume being lost,” he said, but this study looks at “the practical implications for marine transportation.” 

With the expected warming, a shipping route transecting the North Pole will be possible between 2040 and 2059, Stephenson said, as well as other arctic routes, including the famed Northwest Passage.

“These changes are likely already locked in” he said, with the current global temp rise of 1 F, but 4 F in the Arctic. “There isn’t much we can do to stop the Arctic ice from melting now.” Arctic ice levels in September 2012 were the lowest since satellite records began to measure them in 1979.

A crucial tipping point has been reached, according to Smith. 

The UCLA researchers only looked at the month of September when ice cover is at its lowest and the passage isn't likely to remain open beyond late sumer.

They based their findings on seven different forecasts for sea ice cover in the Arctic and then averaged the predictions, according to Stephenson. 

Julienne Stroeve, a scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Co., said the last decade has been “unusually warm” in the Arctic, and is expected to continue.

Stroeve said even if the ice around the North Pole melted it would allow the ice at the actual pole to be “moved” by winds. She also said natural variability in weather should always be kept in mind.

“Some years it might be open and some years it might not be,” Stroeve said, “and that depends on local weather conditions. But the long term trend is, yes, were going see the Arctic ice free in the summer.”

Some routes, including the one through the North Pole, will only be available to ice-capable, polar class vessels, Stephenson said, with thickened hulls and upgraded engines. Although he did say that other Arctic routes will be available to open-water ships that have not been made ice ready.

“If it’s economically feasible, shippers will start making investments in these ice-capable ships,” Stephenson said. “At the moment these polar class vessels are a very small percentage of the ships out there.”

George Leshkevich, who studies ice on the great lakes at the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Mich., said changes in ice are occurring locally as well.

“If you get a warm year like we had last year,” Leshkevich said, “the Lake Carriers’ Association can request that the locks be opened earlier than the set date.”

Leshkevich said the Soo Locks, located between the Northern peninsula of Michigan and Ontario, and the lower Great Lakes used to closed in December but now close in early January because warmer weather keeps the passage open longer.

In their annual report, the Lake Carriers’ Association said cargo movement within the Great Lakes during the ice season, from early December into April, can be as much as 20 million tons, or 15 percent of the annual total.

The annual report also said Canada has cut its icebreaking fleet from seven to two vessels. Whether this was due to less ice in unknown.

Stephenson said the new route will remain a “novelty” when compared to the Suez or the Panama canals and that there are bigger implication for resource extraction, port construction and jurisdiction over shipping lanes.

Marika Holland is a scientist at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research and has been studying Arctic ice her entire career. She said this loss of sea ice will lead to “winners” and “losers.”

“Some people are interested in sea ice diminishing because of how they are going to benefit from it,” Holland said. “And others are interested because they’ll be hurt from it…there are huge concerns in terms of what’s happening in the Arctic with climate, infrastructure and wildlife.”

Holland said she appreciated the study for creating a dialogue between scientists and those studying the socio-economic impacts of climate change.

“They’re taking a holistic look at these changes,” Holland said. “Not just what’s going to happen to the sea ice.”

Stephenson described his own prediction for an Arctic sea route by mid-century as “conservative,” and said changes in ice are happening faster than most models predict.

“I think it’s possible we’ll see it in the next 20 years, just based on what we’ve observed over the past 5-10 years,” Stephenson said.