Climate science and the global shipping industry collide in an ice-poor Arctic. The shipping season could start 3 days earlier and extend 4 more days per decade in the Arctic in a world that exceeds 1.5°C of warming, according to new projections from eos.org
Controversy over shipping lanes in the Arctic Ocean is intensifying in light of recent climate science projections of melting sea ice. By mid-century, ice-free routes in international waters once covered by summer sea ice may appear for the first time in recent history, according to new research. A more accessible Arctic could influence the timing, sustainability and legal status of international shipping.
Diverting ships from their original routes, often from the Panama or Suez canals, could reduce transit time and distance for many international voyages. And a small subset of shipping routes could significantly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions if they are diverted through the Arctic.
“The unfortunate reality is that the ice is already retreating, these routes are opening up, and we need to start thinking critically about the legal, environmental and geopolitical implications.”
The extent of sea ice can even influence the scope of international law: currently, article 234 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea gives coastal countries regulatory power over areas that are covered by ice during most of the year. Though opinions differ, some have said shrinking sea ice could limit countries’ claims on the Arctic Ocean.
“There is no scenario in which melting ice in the Arctic is good news,” said climatologist Amanda Lynch of Brown University. “But the unfortunate reality is that the ice is already retreating, these routes are opening up, and we need to start thinking critically about the legal, environmental and geopolitical implications.”
The extent of Arctic melting depends on how warm the world gets. Scientists have warned that heating the Earth much beyond 1.5°C will have disastrous and deadly consequences.
Supply chain disruptions from the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have highlighted the delicate flow of global goods.
For some, a warming Arctic presents an opportunity for trade: Channeling ships through the Arctic Northern Sea Route is 30% to 50% shorter than taking the Suez Canal, according to a review by the international shipping from 2021. Travel time could be reduced by more than 2 weeks, depending on the speed of the ship.
The deviations “will have a low impact on global emissions.”
However, those looking for a climate-friendly reason to ship to the Arctic may be disappointed.
Zhaojun Wang of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, who conducted research on Arctic shipping while a doctoral student at the University of Delaware, found that diverting a small subset of global shipping reduced its emissions by an average of 24%. , conserving about 264 metric tons. of fuel each.
But those trips make up only a small fraction of sea travel: only 20 of more than 500,000 international commercial trips save money and time by taking the Arctic route. These deviations “will have little impact on global emissions,” Wang said. He published the results in the journal Maritime Policy and Management last year.
According to new results from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), the reduction of the ice could affect the digital footprint of the Arctic law. Sea ice is preferentially retreating from the eastern Arctic, near Russia.
“Decreasing sea ice means that the state of Russia will not be able to make the same level of claims, at least not legally, across the waters,” said Charles Norchi, director of ocean and coastal law at the University’s School of Sciences. University of Maine. Law, who participated in the new study. “What we have is the law and geopolitical relationships really driven by the science of climate change.”
But Arild Moe, a research professor at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute in Norway and a co-author of the 2021 analysis of the Northern Sea Route, said Russia can maintain control of the traffic even when the sea ice disappears. “I don’t see a reduction in regulatory friction.”
There are many kinds of ships that could take advantage of ice-free waters in the future: warships, cruise ships, container ships, science ships, and transport ships to offshore drilling rigs.
These ships would have to face myriad challenges in an increasingly ice-free Arctic. One of the most prominent is the fact that the ice in the Arctic will vary dramatically from year to year. “Regardless of which climate change scenario path we are on, interannual variability remained very high for a long period,” said Lynch, who led the latest PNAS study.
“The diversification of trade routes, especially considering new routes that cannot be blocked, because they are not channels, gives the global shipping infrastructure much more resilience.”
Although 83 of more than 500,000 voyages were shorter and 45 saved sailing time in Wang’s sustainability analysis, only 20 were economically viable. “We definitely think this is a surprising result, because people always talk about the Arctic as having great potential for shipping.”
The complications don’t end there: it’s hard to get satellite navigation coverage in the Arctic, ice is difficult to forecast, emergency operations are challenging, and shipping has several restrictions under the Polar Code, which limits the size of vehicles allowed. Wang has also been concerned about the effects of invasive species on the fragile Arctic environment.
“Even if there were some carriers that preferred trans-Arctic shipping, others might not,” Moe said. “Risk assessments and insurance are key here.”
But Norchi pointed to the potential benefits of diversifying shipping.
“The diversification of trade routes, especially considering new routes that cannot be blocked, because they are not channels, gives the global shipping infrastructure much more resilience,” Norchi said.
—Jenessa Duncombe (@jrdscience), writer