Sail Across The North Pole By 2050
March 5, 2013

Arctic Shipping Lanes Could Open Up Dramatically By 2050

Alan McStravick for - Your Universe Online

The quest to set foot on the North Pole began in the early 1800s but the realization of that quest had to wait nearly 100 years to occur. The US Navy engineer, Robert Peary, claimed (and not without more than a little controversy) to have reached the Pole on April 6, 1909.

One of the most daunting obstacles in reaching the hometown of Mr. and Mrs. Claus is the ocean it is located in. Unlike the South Pole, the North Pole rests upon a body of water covered by a near permanent blanket of shifting sea ice. This treacherous terrain forced many an explorer to turn back from their intended destination.

In new research emerging from UCLA, however, we are learning that accessing the North Pole will be much more of an elementary exercise by the middle of the current century. The team contends that the unprecedented late summer ice melt due to widespread climate change will make the Arctic Ocean shipping lanes more accessible than they have ever been.

"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.

Smith and colleagues published their findings in the latest issue of the scholarly journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In it, they explain how their research was intended to explore accessibility during the Arctic´s most navigable month of the year, September. The team extrapolated climate forecasts from the continual global temperature increase to compile the first thorough assessment of trans-Arctic shipping potential. The predictive research focused on the years between 2040 and 2059.

While shipping vessels can navigate parts of the ocean with the aid of large icebreakers today, the research team claims by mid-century travel on these waters will be almost completely unimpeded.

"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 PhD candidate in the UCLA Department of Geography.

Smith and Stephenson go on to predict the Arctic ice sheet will have thinned to such a point that icebreakers will experience little resistance as they sail between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans directly over the North Pole.

"Nobody's ever talked about shipping over the top of the North Pole," Smith said. "This is an entirely unexpected possibility."

The ability to ship on a route passing directly over the North Pole would shorten a ship´s journey by a full 20 percent when compared to traveling the currently most-trafficked Arctic shipping lane, the Northern Sea Route. This route follows closely the coast of Russia. The Northern Sea Route is a preferred route by many shippers as it is approximately 40 percent shorter than the southern shipping route that travels through the Suez Canal.

The other side of the Arctic Ocean contains the fabled Northwest Passage. This route, just to the north of the Canadian coastline, is the most direct route from Asia to North America. Though this passage is known for its harsh and unforgiving conditions, the team expects the route will be navigable by Polar Class 6 vessels which have been strengthened against ice. The situation may even be favorable for vessels with reinforced hulls. The bulk of the world´s commercial fleet is already built with reinforced hulls.

In recent history, the Northwest Passage has only been navigable, on average, one out of every seven years. For this reason, travel and shipping by this route has been deemed too unreliable by commercial shippers. According to the research team, by 2050, sea ice will melt in September to the point the above mentioned average will be reduced to one out of every two years. According to Smith, that reality will take decision making on whether or not to utilize the Northwest Passage for shipping down to the toss of a coin.

As temperatures increase and speed up the sea ice melt, Smith stresses the point that access in the Arctic will not continue beyond late summer. “This will never be a year-round operation.”

This is not the first entry on Smith´s resume relating to climate change and its effect on the Arctic. Climate change has seen the average temperatures for the Arctic besting the increase noticed globally since the mid-1980s. Smith has documented the disappearance of over 1,000 Arctic lakes. Additionally, he authored “The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization´s Northern Future.” This book, published in 2010, was an exploration of the possible economic opportunities arising in the new Arctic. It also focused on the region´s environmental degradation. It was with Stephenson that Smith compiled a detailed analysis of how global warming will affect Arctic ice roads and the sparsely populated communities that depend upon them.

The team conducted their study, focusing on the new shipping routes and the ice melt that made them available for navigation. Their forward-looking extrapolation was predicted from a comparison of seven highly respected forecasts for the sea ice cover in the Arctic. From this comparison, an averaged prediction of the extent of the Arctic ice sheet in the month of September was drawn. September is historically the month with the least ice coverage. They perpetuated their predictions all the way to the years between 2040 and 2059.

The conventional wisdom holds that, by the time of their study´s focus, there will have been a 25 percent increase in global carbon emissions. An increase of this magnitude will produce an expected medium-low increase in temperature. Others feel an increase of 25 percent is about 10 percent too low of an estimate. The team utilized both of these scenarios to form their predictive model. Quite surprisingly, the team learned the realization of either scenario would present dramatic results, with regard to changes in Arctic accessibility.

"No matter which carbon emission scenario is considered, by mid-century we will have passed a crucial tipping point – sufficiently thin sea ice – enabling moderately capable icebreakers to go where they please," Smith said.

When viewed through the lens of a human lifetime, the year 2050 seems some way off. The research team points out that 37 years is well within the long lead times of commercial and governmental planning efforts. Since this truth is evident, Smith and Stephenson claim their projections will be important for planning of future port construction, the acquisition of natural resources and the establishment of jurisdiction of shipping lanes.

As an example, Canada has laid claim to the Northwest Passage. The Canadian government says the passage falls under Canadian sovereignty. However, the US argues the passage is an international strait. In current day, with the passage being practically impassable, the argument is solely academic. However, as accessibility continues to increase, the team warns of future conflict between the two North American neighbors.

Smith and Stephenson also predict political repercussions from their findings. As these extreme northern routes continue to open up, they claim the likelihood of the US ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea increases, too. This is because some of the new shipping lanes would travel over waters the US could conceivably claim an internationally recognized sovereignty. Once this sovereignty is established, the US would be the creator and arbiter of rules developed for ships that would pass through their waters. The Russian government already makes a pretty penny by levying a steep tax for each vessel that sails the Northern Sea Route.

As the ice sheet dissipates, many ship operators could sidestep governmental fees and regulations, taking their fleet into lesser regulated international waters.

For the reward of operating in a regulation free zone, businesses will have to recognize the inherent risks. These risks include safety, environmental and legal issues that may arise, short of a governmental resolution. The researchers claim the possibility of traditional open-water ships choosing to enter the summer Arctic Ocean has already brought a sense of urgency towards the drafting of maritime legislation. International regulation that can provide adequate environmental protections, vessel safety standards and search-and-rescue capability are fast becoming a necessity.

"The Arctic is a fragile and dangerous place," Smith said.