Melting Arctic ice 'could transform international shipping routes'

Melting Arctic ice could ‘transform’ international shipping routes, suggests a new study.

Global warming melting pack ice in the Arctic Ocean could yield new routes – reducing the shipping industry’s carbon footprint and weakening Russia’s control over trade routes through the region, according to the research.

With climate change rapidly warming the world’s oceans, scientists say the future looks grim for the Arctic Ocean.

Climate models show that parts of the Arctic that were once covered in ice all year are warming so quickly that they will be reliably ice-free for months on end within two decades.

Scientists say that the Arctic’s changing climate will endanger countless species that thrive in freezing temperatures.

But it could also provide shorter, more eco-friendly maritime trade routes that bypass the Russian-controlled Northern Sea Route.

Climate scientists at Brown University in the United States teamed up with a legal expert to predict how Arctic Ocean ice melt could affect the regulation of shipping routes over the next few decades.

They projected that by 2065, the Arctic’s navigability will increase so greatly that it could yield new trade routes in international waters.

Lead author Professor Amanda Lynch said: ‘There’s no scenario in which melting ice in the Arctic is good news.

‘But the unfortunate reality is that the ice is already retreating, these routes are opening up, and we need to start thinking critically about the legal, environmental and geopolitical implications.’

The opening of new routes

Prof Lynch, who has studied climate change in the Arctic for nearly 30 years, said that as a first step, she worked with Dr Xueke Li, a postdoctoral research associate at Brown University, to model four navigation scenarios based on four likely outcomes of global actions to halt climate change in the coming years.

Their projections showed that unless global leaders successfully constrain warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius over the next 43 years, climate change will likely open up ‘several’ new routes through international waters by the middle of this century.

Co-author Professor Charles Norchi, director of the Centre for Oceans and Coastal Law at Maine Law, says the changes could have major implications for world trade and global politics.

He explained that since 1982, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea has given Arctic coastal states enhanced authority over primary shipping routes.

Article 234 and Russia

Article 234 of the convention states that in the name of ‘the prevention, reduction and control of marine pollution from vessels,’ countries whose coastlines are near Arctic shipping routes have the ability to regulate the route’s maritime traffic, so long as the area remains ice-covered for the majority of the year.

Prof Norchi says that for decades, Russia has used Article 234 for its own economic and geopolitical interests. One Russian law requires all vessels passing through the Northern Sea Route to be piloted by Russians.

Russia also requires that passing vessels pay tolls and provide advance notice of their plans to use the route.

Prof Nochi explained that the heavy regulation is one of several reasons why major shipping firms often bypass the route’s heavy regulations and high costs and instead use the Suez and Panama canals – which are longer, but cheaper and easier, trade routes.

But as the ice near Russia’s northern coast begins to melt, Prof Norchi says that so will its grip on shipping through the Arctic Ocean.

He said: ‘The Russians will, I’m sure, continue to invoke Article 234, which they will attempt to back up with their might.

‘But they will be challenged by the international community, because Article 234 will cease to be applicable if there’s no ice covered-area for most of the year.

‘Not only that, but with melting ice, shipping will move out of Russian territorial waters and into international waters.

‘If that happens, Russia can’t do much, because the outcome is driven by climate change and shipping economics.’

The effect on global shipping

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

That means that if international Arctic waters warm enough to open up new pathways, shipping firms could reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by around 24 per cent while also saving money and time.

Prof Lynch said: ‘These potential new Arctic routes are a useful thing to consider when you recall the moment when the Ever Given ship was stranded in the Suez Canal, blocking an important shipping route for several weeks.

‘Diversifying trade routes – especially considering new routes that can’t be blocked, because they’re not canals – gives the global shipping infrastructure a lot more resiliency.’

Prof Lynch hopes that kicking off the conversation on the Arctic’s trade future with well-researched scholarship might help world leaders make informed decisions about protecting the Earth’s climate from future harm.

She added: ‘Flagging these coming changes now could help prevent them from emerging as a crisis that has to be resolved rapidly, which almost never turns out well.

‘To actually craft international agreements with some forethought and deliberation is certainly a better way to go.’

The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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