Arctic ice-melt will bring frosty relations as nations navigate across North Pole
Steve Connor is the Science Editor of The Independent. He has won many awards for his journalism, including five-times winner of the prestigious British science writers’ award; the David Perlman Award of the American Geophysical Union; twice commended as specialist journalist of the year in the UK Press Awards; UK health journalist of the year and a special merit award of the European School of Oncology for his investigative journalism. He has a degree in zoology from the University of Oxford and has a special interest in genetics and medical science, human evolution and origins, climate change and the environment.
Monday 04 March 2013
The loss if sea ice in the Arctic will allow ships to navigate freely across the North Pole by the middle of the century and could lead to unprecedented geo-political tensions between countries that have territorial claims in the region, scientists said.
Ice-breaking ships that are only moderately strengthened against sea ice will be able to cross the Arctic Ocean with impunity during the late summer months starting from about 2050, the scientists found in a study of how the loss of the floating sea ice will affect commercial shipping.
New routes will open up between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans which will allow shipping companies to abandon traditional courses through the Panama and Suez canals. Instead, they will be able to sail unhindered over the top of the world for much of the summer, the scientists found.
However, long-standing tensions between the Arctic nations, even between traditional allies such as Canada and the United States, will surface as nations vie for political and economic control of the new shipping lanes, said Laurance Smith, professor of geography at the University of California at Los Angeles.
“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 Professor Smith, co-author of the study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The sea ice of the Arctic during the summer months has melted by about 25 per cent on average in terms of surface area over the past 30 years. Scientists believe this is down to climate change caused by rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Last September, the month of the minimum sea-ice extent, set a new record. Scientists estimated that sea ice covered 1.32 million square miles, which was nearly 300,000 square miles – an additional area of open ocean greater than the state of Texas – less than the previous record minimum set in September 2007.
Arctic experts believe that a totally ice-free summer Arctic could occur as early as 2030, with some suggesting it could happen within the next five to ten years. Almost all computer models predict an ice-free summer in the Arctic Ocean by the end of this century.
The latest study found that even under moderate climate-change scenarios, where rises in carbon dioxide do not follow the highest-possible course, could still lead to new Arctic shipping lanes opening by the around the middle of the century.
“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 the study’s co-author, Scott Stephenson of UCLA.
Polar icebreakers will soon be able to cross directly over the North Pole rather than traversing the Northwest Passage around the coast of Canada and Alaska, or the Northern Sea Route along the coastline of Russia. “Nobody’s ever talked about shipping over the top of the North Pole. This is an entirely unexpected possibility,” Mr Stephenson said.
“No matter which carbon emissions scenario is considered, by mid-century we will have passed a crucial tipping point – sufficiently thin ice – enabling moderately capable icebreakers to go where they please,” he said.
At the moment, the Northwest Passage is navigable in summer only about once in every seven years, making it too unreliable for commercial shipping. But in 40 years’ time, it should be accessible every year, creating commercial tensions between Canada and the US given that Canada claims that the passage falls under its sovereignty whilst the US insists it is an international shipping route.
Meanwhile, Russia could lose out to its lucrative trade in escort fees from vessels navigating the Northern Sea Route, the scientists said. The disappearance of the sea ice could mean that ships take the shorter route over the North Pole, outside the jurisdiction of the 200-mile exclusive economic zone off the coast of Russia – although Russia has made territorial claims extending out to the North Pole.
New York snowstorm: What is 'lake-effect' snow and how does it form?
Years of marine research sunk – because seals ate the evidence
Watch amazing footage of London captured by an eagle with head-mounted camera
The ugliest animals on earth: Blobfish, axolotl and proboscis monkey battle it out to be named least attractive beast
French authorities in race to dispose of beached whale carcass amid fears it could explode
- 1 'Not suppost to cry': 9-year-old lists the worst things about being a boy
- 2 'Beast of Bolsover' Dennis Skinner takes Ukip MP Mark Reckless to task moments after he is sworn in
- 3 Woman opens professional cuddling shop – gets 10,000 customers in first week
- 4 Lana Del Rey rape video: Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking leaked footage
- 5 Largest ever study into the gay gene 'erodes the notion that sexual orientation is a choice'
Rochester by-election: Ukip gains second MP as Tory defector Mark Reckless holds seat
'Beast of Bolsover' Dennis Skinner takes Ukip MP Mark Reckless to task moments after he is sworn in
'Muslims pre-date Columbus in discovering America,' says Turkish president Erdogan
Rochester by-election: Labour MP Emily Thornberry resigns after posting white van and England flags tweet
France 'blocks' Russian sailors from boarding a warship
Former Tory PM Sir John Major says 'we would not have an NHS without migrants'
£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...
Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...
£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Sales Account Manager...
£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Trainee Sales Account Manager...