Study: climate change opens Arctic by 2050
AMSTERDAM _ Climate change will soon cause enough late-summer ice to melt opening arctic sea lanes to cargo vessels unaided by icebreakers. A UCLA study sees this happening by 2050. “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 R. Stephenson, one of the report’s authors. Climate change succeeds where Willem Barents, the 16th century Dutch navigator, failed 3 times.
The UCLA findings make the point that the 2050 projection may seem distant, but it meshes with the usual lead times of commercial and governmental planning. As such it has implications for port construction or sorting out jurisdiction over shipping lanes. The latter was never a priority when northern passages were essentially unnavigable.
The report focuses on the most navigable arctic month, September. Apart from unaided cargo vessels, it also sees arctic ice thin enough for icebreakers to hop from the Atlantic to the Pacific in “a straight shot over the North Pole.” (Red line on map). That route is 20% shorter than today’s quickest passage, the Northern Sea Route along the Russian coast. For Europe-to-Asia traffic, that Northern Sea Route is already 40% shorter than the Suez Canal route.
Also, the notoriously treacherous Northwest Passage _ the most direct route from Asia to eastern Canada and northeastern USA _ may become doable for Polar Class 6 vessels — a type of ship strengthened against ice — and possibly even ships without reinforced hulls, says the study. Today, the Northwest Passage is navigable only 1 out of 7 years, on average. That makes it unreliable for commercial shipping. By 2050, sea ice will melt in September to the point the passage can be made every other year, on average. The predictions do not foresee access beyond late summer.
For centuries, the Arctic Ocean has captured the imagination of explorers because of the possibility it offers for traveling between the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans through the Bering Strait. Until recently, however, sea ice has blocked access to the potential shortcut between Asia and North America or Europe. But in the past two years, the ice has begun to melt in late summer to such an extent that even ordinary seagoing vessels, albeit with escorts, have been able to enter its frigid waters. In summer 2012, a total of 46 voyages successfully crossed the Northern Sea Route.