Science

Melting Polar Ice Caps Will Open Up New Arctic Shipping Routes

By Sean Kane , Mar 05, 2013 07:34 AM EST
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Rising temperatures and melting polar ice caps may not be so bad for shipping.

As ice at the poles of the Earth recedes, new time-saving shipping routes may open up as early as the mid-21st century. We may finally have a Northwest Passage, the long-sought passage that European explorers looked for in the New World.

Of course, this is hardly the Northwest Passage that Europe’s finest adventures spent years searching for. A direct route between Europe and East Asia does not exist, namely because there’s a quaint little continent known as North America standing in its way.

But fabled shortcuts to Asia aside, a new route over the northern polar region could save massive amounts of time, money and fuel for shipping companies. A new study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Plus on Monday

“Nobody’s ever talked about shipping over the top of the North Pole,” lead author Laurence C. Smith, a geology professor at UCLA, told USA Today. “This is an entirely unexpected possibility.”

It’s estimated that a route over the North Pole would first be open in the 2040s or 2050s. The route would only be available in late summer and early fall. The optimal time, according to Smith, is in September. After a summer of melting, the Arctic sea reaches its annual minimum during that month.

This new route could have a big effect on international shipping. Traditionally, ships traveling from Europe to East Asia must travel through the Suez Canal, the small channel that connects the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea and grants ships access to the Indian Ocean. But a new route could save massive amounts of time.

“This 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,” Smith said.

Of course, only icebreaking ships would be capable of making the crossing, as large pieces of floating ice would still remain in the Arctic Sea. In past years, a few dozen icebreaking ships have crossed the top of the Earth using the Northern Sea Route, which crosses over the northern coast of Russia, and also has been historically impassable.

The international community will need to sort out how exactly to manage shipping in the Arctic. Five countries, the United States, Canada, Denmark (which presides over Greenland), Russia and Norway, control most of the Arctic Ocean, although the very center, including the North Pole, is considered international waters. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is also working to improve navigation in the region by updating maps and charts.

“Ships need updated charts with precise and accurate measurements,” Captain Doug Baird, chief of NOAA’s Coast Survey’s marine chart division, told USA Today. “We don’t have decades to get it done. Ice diminishment is here now.”

(Edited by Lois Heyman)

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