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Melting Arctic ice could open up new eco-friendly shipping routes

From wildfires starting to melting glaciers, the negative effects of climate change are well documented, but a new study suggests at least one could be positive.

Researchers say that in just two decades, parts of the Arctic that were once covered in year-round ice will be reliably ice-free for months due to global warming.

A result of this could be shorter, more environmentally friendly maritime trade routes bypassing the Russian-controlled Northern Sea Route.

This would reduce the shipping industry’s environmental footprint and weaken Russia’s control over trade routes through the Arctic, they say.

Examples of routes through the Arctic that will be made more navigable by melting ice include the Transpolar Sea Route and the Northwest Passage.

Researchers say melting Arctic ice could lead to shorter, more environmentally friendly maritime trade routes bypassing Russia-controlled Northern Sea Route (file photo)

Researchers say melting Arctic ice could lead to shorter, more environmentally friendly maritime trade routes bypassing Russia-controlled Northern Sea Route (file photo)

Due to strict regulations along the Russians' Northern Sea Route, shipping companies often use the longer Suez and Panama Canal routes instead

Due to strict regulations along the Russians’ Northern Sea Route, shipping companies often use the longer Suez and Panama Canal routes instead

The study was conducted by climate scientists at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, who collaborated with a lawyer at the University of Maine School of Law.

THE NORTHERN SEA ROUTE

The Northern Sea Route is a shipping route between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, officially defined by Russian law.

It runs along Russia’s Arctic coast from Murmansk on the Barents Sea, past Siberia to the Bering Strait and the Far East.

The route is located in Arctic waters and parts are only ice-free for two months of the year.

Together with the warming in the Arctic, the passage can increasingly be used for shipping.

The energy and time savings compared to the normally used route via the Suez Canal are approximately 30-40 percent.

Source: barentsinfo

The experts emphasize that the Arctic’s changing climate will endanger numerous species that thrive in sub-zero temperatures, so it’s not entirely “good news.”

“There is no scenario where melting ice in the Arctic is good news,” said study co-author Professor Amanda Lynch of Brown University.

“But the unfortunate reality is that the ice is already receding, these routes are opening up and we need to think critically about the legal, environmental and geopolitical implications.”

Lynch and colleagues used computer modeling to determine the likely outcomes of global action to halt climate change in the coming years.

The authors based their projections on four emission scenarios, ranging from high emissions to the more limited 2.7 °F (1.5 °C) warming.

Projections showed that unless world leaders successfully limit warming to 2.7°F over the next 43 years, climate change is likely to open several new routes through international waters by 2065.

The probability of a navigable season outside Russian waters increased by almost 30 percent, with 99 percent confidence in the highest emissions scenario by 2065.

But parts of the Arctic are warming so quickly that they will be reliably ice-free for months within two decades, which would be plenty of time to undertake shipping voyages.

According to lawyer Charles Norchi, changes caused by global warming could have major consequences for world trade and politics, especially in light of the Russian war against Ukraine.

Examples of Arctic routes that will be made more navigable by melting ice include the Transpolar Sea Route (yellow) and the Northwest Passage (red)

Examples of Arctic routes that will be made more navigable by melting ice include the Transpolar Sea Route (yellow) and the Northwest Passage (red)

Since 1982, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea has given Arctic coastal states — including Canada and Russia — greater powers over primary shipping routes.

Article 234 of the treaty states that in the name of “preventing, reducing and controlling marine pollution from ships”, countries whose coastlines are near Arctic shipping routes have the ability to regulate the maritime traffic of the route , as long as the area remains ice-free – covered most of the year.

Norchi said Russia has been using Article 234 for its own economic and geopolitical interests for decades; for example, a Russian law requires that all ships passing through the Northern Sea Route be controlled by Russians.

The Northern Sea Route is a shipping route in Arctic waters.  Parts of the Northern Sea Route are only ice-free for two months a year

The Northern Sea Route is a shipping route in Arctic waters. Parts of the Northern Sea Route are only ice-free for two months a year

The country also requires passing ships to pay tolls and give advance notice of their plans to use the route.

The strict regulations are one of the many reasons why major shipping companies often bypass the route’s heavy regulations and high costs and instead use the Suez and Panama Canals – longer, but cheaper and easier trade routes.

But as the ice near Russia’s northern coast begins to melt, Norchi said, so will the country’s hold on shipping through the Arctic Ocean.

“I am sure that the Russians will continue to invoke Article 234, which they will try to support with their power,” Norchi said.

“But they will be challenged by the international community because Article 234 will no longer apply if there is no ice field for most of the year.”

An icebreaker moves through the Northern Sea Route that forms a valuable direct line from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean on Russia's northern coast

An icebreaker moves through the Northern Sea Route that forms a valuable direct line from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean on Russia’s northern coast

Shipping will also leave Russian territorial waters and enter international waters, which Russia “can’t do much about.”

According to Lynch, previous studies have shown that Arctic routes are 30 to 50 percent shorter than the Suez Canal and Panama Canal routes, and have reduced transit time by an estimated 14 to 20 days.

That means if international Arctic waters are warm enough to open up new avenues, shipping companies can cut their greenhouse gas emissions by about 24 percent while saving money and time.

According to the team, it’s better to ask questions about the future of shipping now, rather than later, given how long it can take to enact international laws.

For context, it took 10 years for world governments to negotiate the Convention on the Law of the Sea.

“Marking these upcoming changes now can prevent them from posing as a crisis that needs to be resolved quickly, which almost never works out,” Lynch said.

‘It is certainly a better way to make international agreements with some foresight and consultation.

The new study is published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

WHY WILL SHIPPING EXPORT IN THE ARCTIC?

In August 2016, the first major cruise ship passed through the Northwest Passage, the northern waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

The following year, the first ship without an icebreaker sailed the Northern Sea Route, a path along Russia’s Arctic coast that until recently was impassable to unescorted commercial vessels.

In recent decades, parts of the Arctic seas have become increasingly ice-free in late summer and early fall.

As sea ice is expected to continue to decline due to climate change, seasonal shipping traffic from tourism and cargo is expected to increase.

The journey through the Arctic Ocean is already beginning, with the Russian route having the most potential for commercial ships.

The Northern Sea Route had more than 200 vessels from 2011 to 2016, all of them large vessels.

In that time, more than 100 ships have passed through the Northwest Passage, more than half of which are small, privately owned vessels such as personal yachts.

Experts say even the Arctic could be passable within a few decades.

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