The Arctic Ocean could open for regular commercial shipping within the next five to 10 years, according to a Canadian polar scientist who conducted research for the International Polar Year Conference.
But while that may sound like welcome news for intercontinental commerce, the changing ice conditions could bring new hazards to ships plying the polar seas.
"Just because you're reducing the ice like that, one of the things we found was that you increase the speed at which this ice moves," said Dr. David Barber, the lead scientist on the Circumpolar Flaw Lead (CFL) System Study.
Barber presented the results of his study on Wednesday at the International Polar Year Conference in Montreal. More than 2,000 scientists were at the week-long conference to discuss the findings of International Polar Year, which lasted from 2007 to 2009.
Barber's study involved spending an entire winter aboard the Canadian Coast Guard's research icebreaker, Amundsen, in the open waters of the Beaufort Sea. CFL is an oceanographic term for the water between arctic land masses and mobile sea ice.
"We wanted to do something really unique; something that no one else had ever done before. And so we looked at -- scientifically -- what are the big questions that we have?" Barber said.
"And it always came back to this issue of: What happens with open water in the middle of winter?"
The answers he came up with stunned him.
Arctic coast becoming more like Pacific, Atlantic ones
The water stays open longer, he said. Barber found unfrozen ocean in December and January.
With the open water came intense storms. The snow from those storms insulated the multi-year sea ice, which meant that it didn't thicken up as much.
In short, the Arctic coast is becoming more like the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. It is turning into a maritime climate that is stormy and largely ice-free during the winter.
These changes mean there are now thousands of transits each year in the Arctic.
The vast majority are made by ships sailing into and out of the polar ocean on specific journeys, according to Lawson Brigham, a polar shipping expert who teaches at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
"What we won't see -- and what is covered in media a lot -- is a new global shipping route," argues Brigham.
He says there is still too much ice for that and the economics for a new route aren't there yet.
For now, shipping traffic in the Arctic will be driven by two industries: resource extraction and tourism.
Of course, the reduction of sea ice won't only affect ships.
"To put it extremely simply, the two refrigerators are warming up. And so, if you change those it affects the climate. It affects the ocean currents. It affects species," said Peter Harrison, the chairman of the International Polar Year Conference.
This commentary is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.