Sea Ice Decline Means Arctic Ocean Shipping Routes Will Be Open Year-Round By 2100

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It’s great news for ships and trade – but not such good news for the planet. The decline in sea ice in the Arctic Ocean will make North Pole shipping routes far more accessible within the coming decades. So much so, ships will able to make the journey all year round by the end of the century.

A new study from the University of Reading has used climate model projections to work out how Arctic shipping routes will be affected by reductions in sea ice levels. Their study was recently published in Geophysical Research Letters.

Traveling port to port within the Arctic or traveling between Pacific and Atlantic ports through the Arctic Ocean is currently only possible in the summer months. Even then, the routes are unreliable and often change year-on-year, making them difficult to traverse. 

However, the Arctic Ocean is seeing less and less ice each year. By 2050, the absence of sea ice will create double the number of opportunities for non-specialized boats to make the journey across the top of Siberia. By the end of the century, moderately strengthened vessels will be able to make the journey for 10 to 12 months of the year. These figures are all based on current rates of sea ice reduction and projections of the world's carbon dioxide emissions.

"Importantly, the length of time available for journeys during summer also increases from around a few weeks to a few months, but with considerable variability from year-to-year," lead researcher Dr Nathanael Melia said in a statement.

Line thickness indicates the number of transits using the same route. Light blue lines represent Open Water vessels and the pink line represents specialized Polar Class 6 vessels. Nathanael Melia et al./University of Reading

The European Space Agency (ESA) has been documenting the levels of ice coverage for years. In 2007, their Envisat satellite showed that shrinking ice cover had revealed a historically impassible route between Europe and Asia in the Northwest Passage of the Arctic. 

It’s been described by the researchers as the most “striking” sign of climate change. By mid-century, however, it will allow voyages between Europe and Asia to be made 10 days faster than current transit times.

“There is renewed interest in trans-Arctic shipping because of potentially reduced costs and journey times between Asia and the Atlantic. So far only a few commercial vessels have utilised these routes as they are not currently reliably open," Melia added. "Ice-strengthened ships will regularly be able to sail a direct route across the North Pole for most of the year by the end of the century, assuming medium to high future greenhouse gas emissions."

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