Shorter shipping routes: An ice-free Arctic could help protect the climate

Shorter routes for transport
An ice-free Arctic could help protect the climate

Global warming is melting the ice in the Arctic. This threatens the survival of many species. However, scientists also point to the opportunity: Merchant ships are suddenly able to use shorter and less climate-damaging routes.

In just two decades, some areas of the Arctic that were previously covered with ice all year round could be ice-free for months. This threatens the survival of many species, but also opens up new, shorter and thus greener routes for merchant ships that bypass the Russian-controlled North Sea route, U.S. scientists report at the US National Academy of Sciences’ “Proceedings”. They demand that international transport regulations be adapted to the expected conditions now.

“There is no scenario where melting ice in the Arctic is good news,” said lead study author Amanda Lynch of Brown University. “But the unfortunate fact is that the ice is receding, these paths are opening up, and we need to start thinking critically about the legal, environmental and geopolitical consequences.”

Researchers have used modeling to predict how the Arctic ice sheet will evolve in the coming decades under different emission scenarios. Specifically: how high is the probability that the area will be ice-free for at least 32 consecutive days between 2015 and 2065. Possible new routes from Rotterdam to the Bering Strait include the Northwest Passage along the east coast of Greenland across the Davis Strait or the transpolar route between Greenland and Iceland.

Russia uses the path for its own interests

As expected, the data show that the probability of a long-term ice-free condition increases over time in all scenarios. For example, with consistently high emissions and an energy-intensive lifestyle around the world, the probability of a navigable season outside Russian waters increases by almost 30 percent. Under the lowest emissions scenario, no passage is likely to be possible until the middle of the century. However, year-on-year fluctuations have remained significant.

Researchers are focusing on the effects of climate change on Article 234 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. This gives Arctic countries such as Canada and Russia control of shipping on waters to prevent or minimize pollution of waters or coasts by ships. According to the authors, Russia has used this right primarily to promote economic and geopolitical interests. For example, Russian law stipulates that all ships sailing on the northern sea route must be steered by the Russians. Shipping companies would also have to pay high fees and register their travel plans. This causes many companies to switch to longer routes, such as the Suez or Panama Canals.

However, scientists are convinced that the validity of Article 234 will be limited in the future. It only applies as long as the area is covered with ice for most of the year. The international community will discuss Russian control of the sea area in the future. “And that’s not all: With the ice melting, shipping will move from Russian territorial waters to international waters,” said co-author Charles Norchi of the University of Main School of Law in Portland. Russia could do little about it.

Arctic routes shorter and faster

According to earlier studies, Arctic routes are shorter and faster, scientists write. Shipping companies could significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions while saving money and time. The consequences of climate change and the resulting legal consequences for Arctic shipping and global maritime trade are far-reaching.

“Addressing these looming changes now could prevent them from developing into a crisis that needs to be resolved quickly, which almost never ends well,” Lynch said. “Preparing international agreements with a certain foresight and thoughtfulness is definitely a better way.”

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