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Warming Arctic: Open seas, abandoned lands

  • Author: Doug O'Harra
  • Updated: September 30, 2016
  • Published June 18, 2011

Visualize the summer of 2050, and you might see an Alaskan Arctic bustling with maritime activity.

Commercial ships from Japan and the United States will be steaming through the Bering Strait toward Europe on an 11-day, 3,200-mile Northern Sea Route that remains open to ice-strengthened vessels all season. Other vessels plow due North, across the geographic North Pole itself, bound for Rotterdam on a 16-day, 4,300-mile journey that would have been seen as absurd science fiction only a century earlier. Barges and tenders will regularly visit mines, ports and stations.

But come winter, the picture shifts dramatically.

The ocean refreezes. Some shipping might continue to bust through the relatively meager floes of new ice when possible. Yet winter ice-road travel across Alaska's tundra -- a mainstay of Prudhoe Bay oil work since wind-burned roughnecks drilled the Discovery Well five decades ago -- has been sharply curtailed.

With higher overall temperatures, sometimes complicated by insulating snow, tundra and lake will take longer to freeze thick enough to support vehicles 2.2 tons and larger, with the construction of fresh ice roads becoming much more difficult. The fickle window of winter travel will dwindle. By mid-century, the warming trend might have eliminated 50,000 square miles from Alaska's dark-season transportation network: a 30 percent reduction from the present.

Across the entire Arctic, it's the same story. Including vast acreage in northern Russia and Canada, an additional 468,000 square miles of the inland Far North could now be inaccessible to heavy trucks. The ground just won't be freezing as hard or as deep as it used to.

"As sea ice continues to melt, accessibility by sea will increase, but the viability of an important network of roads that depend on freezing temperatures is threatened by a warming climate," said Scott Stephenson, a UCLA graduate student in geography and the lead author of a new modeling analysis published online May 29 in the journal of Nature Climate Change.

The study illustrates how these two consequences of climate change might transform the face of Arctic transportation by mid-century — turbo-charging summertime marine shipping while crippling terrestrial travel. As the century unfolds, these two outcomes will strike the Far North's transportation infrastructure with what the authors call a "double-edged sword." The alchemy of future warming will conjure very different futures for land and sea.

The 'double-edge sword' of Arctic climate change

"Popular perception holds that climate warming will mean an opening up of the Arctic, but our study shows that this is only partly so," said co-author Laurence C. Smith, a UCLA professor, in this story by UCLA writer Meg Sullivan. "Rising maritime access for ships will be severely countered by falling vehicular access on land.

One surprise: It won't be the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic archipelago that channels the shipping renaissance. The authors say the circuitous 5,800-mile trip from Iqaluit to Nome will be open only 82 percent of the time during 2050 summers, similar to the current level of access along Russia's northern coast.

The paper -- "Divergent long-term trajectories of human access to the Arctic" -- explores in detail what might happen as the length and intensity of the Arctic's subzero season scales back. The analysis has already drawn extensive news coverage over the past few weeks, particularly from Canadian outlets on the impact for the future of ice-road trucking.

"The implications could be 'profoundly negative' for remote communities and mining, energy and timber operations that now depend on winter ice roads," wrote Margaret Munro, of Post Media News, in this story published in the Vancouver Sun. (Munro's story also noted that "Canada's fabled Northwest Passage will not open up to shipping anytime soon …")

"This study would suggest that Canada has more to lose that it realizes," Smith told Munro. "Popular conception has it that the Arctic is thawing, that it is opening up, and we'll go in there and get the resources. This study shows it is not as simple as that. In fact much of the landscape will become less accessible."

Meanwhile, sea traffic is basically poised to win the toss, according to this AFP story that got wide Web play.

"So-called Type A vessels — commercial ships which have limited ice-breaking capability — would be able to use three of the four major shipping routes from July to September," the AFP story noted. "For instance, ships could sail from Rotterdam Europe directly to Alaska; from Amderma in northwestern Russia to the Russian Far East port of Provideniya; and from the Canadian port of Churchill to Murmansk in Russia."

"This will be good news for global shipping interests," Stephenson added, "who stand to reap savings by moving cargo through these passages rather than through the Panama Canal, Suez Canal or the Strait of Malacca."

And Alaska will be perched at one of the gateways.

It’s about the water, stupid. (And temperature.)

The most sensible and cost-efficient mode of Arctic travel for modern conveyances has always hinged on the freezing point of water.

Let the air temperature drop far enough below that line, then stay there long enough, and new ice closes the Arctic to shipping while solidifying the soggy, northern landscape into a corridor as stiff as concrete. When the temps creep above that line in spring, the accelerating solar warmth gradually rots the sea ice and opens lanes to shipping and whaling. Meanwhile, the summery weather transforms many overland routes into impassable swamps, a-wallow with muskeg and mosquitoes.

As Stephenson and his two co-authors wrote, "subzero (Celsius) temperatures restrict shipping, but enable passage of ground vehicles over frozen soil and water surfaces."

This principle has controlled the nature of Arctic commerce since the 19th century settlement of Alaska. The legendary Yankee whalers chased bowheads into the Chukchi Sea only when the ice edge retreated, and sometimes met with catastrophe when the polar pack struck back unexpectedly. Alaska's fabled dog-sled routes that flourished during the Gold Rush era existed only after hard winter clamped down. Even now, 21st century industrial and commercial activity continues to follow the same seasonal groove.

But climate warming is expected to change the game. It's possible that average annual Arctic temperatures will rise 3.6 to 16 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, with winter temps possibly jumping as much as 19 degrees F in some locales, according to a model from the National Center for Atmospheric Research used by the study's authors.

All of this additional warming means thinner and less extensive sea ice. On shore, soggy tundra won't harden as quickly or last as long. There will be fewer weeks when a logistics team could build a bomb-proof ice road for heavy trucks.

The details paint vividly different outcomes.

Soggy roads versus open seas

For instance, the 300-plus mile Tibbitt-Contwoyto winter road that services diamond mines in a remote corner of the Northwest Territories -- the most lucrative ice road on the planet, some say -- could lose almost two weeks of its 10-week season by 2020, according to the study.

Alaska's North Slope has lost 100 days since the 1970s, when ice road seasons lasted six and a half months of the year. The region will see much greater losses as the century proceeds.

At the same time, July-September Arctic shipping may open wide by offering much shorter travel times from one hemisphere to another.

"Trans-Arctic routes have the potential for significant distance savings," the authors wrote. "Four consecutive record lows in the September sea-ice minimum from 2007–2010 have spurred renewed interest in the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route, with the latter successfully traversed by two escorted voyages in 2010 and 10 more pending for 2011."

Traversing the Arctic using the Northern Sea Route over Russia (from Rotterdam to Yokohama) is 40 percent shorter than via the Suez Canal. Traveling from St. Johns to Yokohama via the Northwest Passage -- during seasons when it opens -- is one-third shorter than a trip through the Panama Canal.

The study compared the changes expected in four trans-Arctic routes over the next five decades and found that three of them will accommodate ice-strengthened ships throughout July, August and September. Only the Northwest Passage across Canada -- the corridor embedded in North American folklore and history -- continues to clog up with ice under their scenarios.

Even then, the authors expect the Northwest Passage would be open at least 82 percent of the time during the three-month summer period by 2059.

And summer might not be the only window for travel. Consider what was once unthinkable: commercial ships entering the ice pack.

"To the extent that sea ice alone limits Arctic shipping (as opposed to economics, existence of port infrastructure, tariffs, daylight, and other critical factors) the surprising discovery of a nearly year-round increase in accessible area and decreases in (the time it takes to travel to the nearest settlement) suggests that some level of maritime activity will become plausible even in winter, when Arctic shipping is currently limited to year-round ports such as Murmansk and Hammerfest," the authors wrote.

Not so fast: The Arctic bites back

Still, shippers won't necessarily be able to count on open routes every week of every summer, creating logistical and scheduling nightmares. And winter shipping will always present enormous challenges and expense.

"Despite higher access by mid-century along four examined shipping routes, hazards to shipping in the form of icebergs are likely to persist," the authors wrote. "Increased access along the Northwest Passage route may lead to a false sense of optimism for shipping in this region, as a reduction in first-year ice may cause import of (thick multi-year ice) from the Arctic Ocean."

So maybe Alaskans and others shouldn't count on the Arctic Ocean morphing into the world's new shipping superhighway quite so soon, according to the writings and reports by former icebreaker captain Lawson Brigham, chairman of the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment of the Arctic Council and a University of Alaska Fairbanks professor of Arctic policy.

Brigham has long cautioned against overestimating the potential for Arctic shipping in the coming decades. Local traffic to resupply settlements and extract resources from industrial sites are more plausible outcomes than a surge in trans-ocean traffic, he has argued.

"Although several climate models predict an ice-free Arctic Ocean for a brief period each summer as early as 2030, they also project a mostly ice-clogged ocean in winter, spring, and fall through at least the end of the 21st century," Brigham wrote in this essay. "No one predicts an ice-free Arctic Ocean throughout the year.

"This means that an Arctic Ocean crossing, while theoretically possible, might be too difficult and costly to be worth the effort. The more ice along an Arctic navigation route, the slower the ship's speed, a factor that could easily negate the shorter distance gained by sailing across the top of the world. Expensive polar-class ships — ice-breaking cargo carriers — would still be required for most operations. And many other economic details have yet to be filled in."

A race to claim the North Pole (for its buried oil)?

Aside from these logistical issues, the shifting climate realities will complicate the Arctic's geopolitical future and what threatens to become a race to claim a seabed thought to hold enormous reserves of oil and gas.

All five Arctic states — the United States, Canada, Denmark-Greenland, Norway and Russia — will gain more access to their Arctic "sovereign offshore seas" as the climate warms, the authors explained in a supplemental discussion of their work. But "which states stand to benefit most from this increase depends heavily on whether bids to extend the limits of state (Exclusive Economic Zones) are successful."

Both Russia and Norway have already made extensive new claims to Arctic offshore waters: Norway was granted control over sections of the Barents and Norwegian seas in 2009; Russia's claims are under review, but if approved, would grant Russia control of a swath of sea floor ranging from Siberia to the North Pole, the authors said. Given the current understanding of the Arctic Ocean sea bottom and the reach of the continental shelves, United States, Canada and Denmark (via Greenland) could also claim sovereignty far beyond the 200 nautical mile limit of their current EEZs.

"If states were to successfully claim all continental shelf extensions that are believed to exist in theory, 98 percent of oceanic area within the Arctic Circle would be economically controlled by states," the authors wrote.

(For an interesting story about behind-the-scenes jockeying over Arctic claims, see WikiLeaks: A battle to "carve up" the Arctic, published last month by Al Jazeera. For an authoritative discussion of Arctic policy, territorial claims and shipping prospects, see Think again: The Arctic by Brigham.)

Under current conditions, the areas far off shore – the central Arctic Ocean — are now only about 10 percent accessible to ice-strengthened "Type A" ships, the authors said. But the retreat and disintegration of seasonal ice will increase that travel horizon sevenfold by midcentury.

Russia's vast claim that extends to the North Pole, for instance, would be 87 percent accessible using these ice-strengthened "Type A" vessels.

But wait. Will ships really be capable of venturing so deep into the ice? Or penetrate the winter pack to make commercial runs — despite the expense, the danger and the uncertainties that haunt the long, frigid polar night?

The answer, the authors say, is a qualified "yes." Some times, and in some places.

"Ice thinning, rather than recession, is primarily responsible for the winter access increase in the central Arctic," they wrote in a supplemental discussion. "Although no month was projected to be 100 percent ice-free by midcentury, ice thinning was sufficient in all months (particularly in winter) to allow passage.

"This finding underscores an important point: assuming a vessel with some icebreaking capability, ocean area may be technically accessible without being ice-free."

Contact Doug O'Harra at doug(at)

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