Do Melting Ice Caps Mean New & Cheaper Arctic Shipping Routes?Things are changing on the roof of the world. The amount of Arctic sea ice has been steadily declining since the 1970’s – the extent of the ice-caps shrinking at a rate of nearly 12% a decade for the past 30 years, according to the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) – with record lows occurring over the last 10 years.

The consensus between pretty much everyone looking into this – from research climatologists to the US Navy – seems to be that sometime around 2040, the Arctic Ocean will effectively be ice-free for about a month.

If all those experts are right, it will have major implications, and not just for the planet and most especially the wildlife and ecology of the region. It could redraw the map for world trade too – and bring faster, cheaper routes that will help cut the economic and environmental cost of shipping at a stroke.

The Scale of the Thaw

While images of melting glaciers and thawing ice caps make powerful enough icons of our changing climate on their own, some of the hard numbers behind the scale of their loss are, if anything, even more striking.

In mid-August 2013, for example, the area of ice was over two-and-a-half million square kilometres – around one-million square miles – smaller than the same time average extent over the years 1979 to 2000. To put that into perspective, the United Kingdom covers around 245,000 square kilometres, or 94,600 square miles of the world’s surface; the “missing” ice in 2013 amounts to roughly ten times the total area of the UK.

The year was itself looking to be on course to register an all-time minimum – at least until March, when the cold, windy weather conditions responsible for the UK’s horrendous storms in early 2014, hit the Arctic, slowing down the advancing thaw. Even so, despite this last minute icy blast, the amount of Arctic ice remains the fifth lowest on record – and it’s a pattern that doesn’t look like stopping any time soon.

An Ice-Free Arctic?

According to the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit, climate modelling predicts that by around 2050 Arctic summers will be effectively free of sea ice, as the ice thaws in the spring and reforms once more each autumn. It fits in with a general trend of reducing summer sea ice that has been observed over the past 20 years, with less and less ice persisting from one year to the next. Multi-year ice is more resistant to thawing, so not only does this mean that the average thickness of sea ice is reducing, but also that which does form over-winter will melt more readily come the next summer, making for an increasingly ice-less Arctic.

Redefining the Shipping Lanes

An open sea route across the top of the globe has been a dream for countless generations of sailors, and one that now seems much more likely. Recent summers have seen Russia’s Northern Sea Route and the famed Canadian Northwest Passage simultaneously open for the first time in history, and in 2011, the first-ever commercial mineral cargo – 70,000 tonnes of iron ore – was sent from Murmansk to China via the Northern Sea Route.

There are some significant advantages for such an Arctic sea lane. For one thing, the trip from Europe to Asia would be roughly half as long as a conventional voyage via the Suez Canal, and that means a big potential saving in both fuel and carbon emissions. According to its owners, Danish Nordic Bulk Carriers, the MV Sanko Odyssey’s historic journey carrying iron-ore through the Northern Sea Route to China saved around 750 tonnes of fuel alone.

There is also the additional bonus that – at least for now – the Arctic is free of the sort of regional instabilities, security concerns and pirate activities that currently bedevil Suez and the Horn of Africa.

Rivalling Suez

With such obvious commercial benefits for shipping lines and cargo transportation, many see a future where the likes of the Bering Strait, between Russia and the USA, might begin to rival the importance of a number of traditional sea lanes including Suez and the Straits of Malacca.

It would be no mean feat; for almost 150 years, the Suez Canal has been the unchallenged main trading artery between Europe and Asia, accounting for around 10% of global trade, and 20% of the world’s container traffic. According to forecasts from a team at the University of Delaware, a new route through the high north could be taking 2% of the world’s traffic by 2030, and top 5% by 2050.

If so it would be a major blow for Egypt, which relies on the canal as a major source of hard currency, bringing in some $5bn USD a year, but for ship owners, between the fuel economy, the lowered carbon footprint, reduced canal fees and shorter voyage time, it all adds up to a lot of savings.

Not Something to Rush Into

Never-the-less, even an ‘ice-free’ Arctic would only offer a relatively short window of opportunity between July and October for voyages to be made – and the natural yearly weather variation would make it impossible to predict how long it would be open with absolute certainty. In addition, there are currently not many so-called ‘ice-class’ vessels in the world that are capable of making the trip, although as interest in the routes grows, their numbers are likely to increase.

The general consensus amongst those who are actively pioneering routes through the region is that while a way through the high north is a welcome addition, it is something which is not likely to revolutionise trading patterns or trade routes in a hurry.

One obvious reason is that neither the Northern Sea Route nor the Northwest Passage is well mapped, and search and rescue facilities are distinctly limited along both – risks that maritime insurance companies reflect in their premiums – and then there are environmental aspects to consider.

Increasing ship traffic through the Arctic would up the risk of introducing ‘alien’ species to the sensitive waters, and could lead to the release of significant amounts of ‘black carbon’ – a potent pollutant from diesel emissions that has itself been linked to accelerated ice melting. While tough biosecurity and ‘slow steaming’ regulations could help lessen the potential harm, few think it is something to rush into.

It seems the shipping lanes of the world are not about to change overnight – but the huge savings to be made in fuel costs and time make it is almost inevitable that they will. It is almost certainly just a matter of time.