Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Global warming will open unexpected new shipping routes in Arctic

Meg Sullivan in the UCLA Newsroom: Shipping lanes through the Arctic Ocean won't put the Suez and Panama canals out of business anytime soon, but global warming will make these frigid routes much more accessible than ever imagined by melting an unprecedented amount of sea ice during the late summer, new UCLA research shows.

"The development is both exciting from an economic development point of view and worrisome in terms of safety, both for the Arctic environment and for the ships themselves," said lead researcher Laurence C. Smith, a professor of geography at UCLA.

The findings, which explore accessibility during the Arctic's most navigable month of the year, September, appear in the latest issue of the scholarly journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Plus. The first thorough assessment of trans-Arctic shipping potential as global temperatures continue to rise, the study is based on independent climate forecasts for the years 2040 to 2059.

By mid-century, even ordinary shipping vessels will be able to navigate previously inaccessible parts of the Arctic Ocean, and they will not need icebreakers to blaze their path as they do today, the researchers found.

"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," said co-author Scott R. Stephenson, a Ph.D. candidate in the UCLA Department of Geography.

Just as surprisingly, the Arctic ice sheet is expected to thin to the point that polar icebreakers will be able to navigate between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans by making a straight shot over the North Pole, Smith and Stephenson predict. "Nobody's ever talked about shipping over the top of the North Pole," Smith said. "This is an entirely unexpected possibility."...

Red lines indicate the fastest available trans-Arctic routes for Polar Class 6 ships (moderate-capability icebreakers such as those used today in the Baltic), and blue lines indicate the fastest available routes for common open-water ships. Where overlap occurs, line weights indicate the number of successful transits following the same route. Dashed lines reflect currently existing sovereignty boundaries. The white backdrop indicates period-averaged sea ice concentration.  (Courtesy of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)


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