Melting Arctic ice could reroute international shipping sector: study

While a warming climate could spell disaster for countless snow-loving species, an ice-free Arctic artery could also offer critical trade alternatives to the Russian-controlled Northern Sea Route, a new study has found.

Climate models indicate that parts of the Arctic Ocean that were once covered in ice year-round are now warming so rapidly that they will likely be iceless for months on end in as soon as two decades, according to the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

This dramatic transformation will lead to the endangerment of species that thrive in sub-zero temperatures, the researchers acknowledged.

Yet these conditions will also increase the Arctic’s navigability so much that by 2065, new trade routes could be populating international waters — not only curbing the shipping industry’s carbon footprint, but also loosening Russia’s control over trade in the Arctic, according to the study.

“There’s no scenario in which melting ice in the Arctic is good news,” writes lead author Amanda Lynch, a professor of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Brown University.

“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,” Lynch added.

Lynch and her colleagues worked to model four navigation scenarios based on different potential outcomes of global efforts to stymie climate change in the coming years, according to the study.

Their projections determined that unless world leaders constrain warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) over the next 43 years, climate change will likely open new maritime routes through international waters by the middle of the century.

Such changes could have significant implications for both world trade and global politics, according to co-author Charles Norchi, director of the Center for Oceans and Coastal Law at the University of Maine School of Law and a visiting scholar at Brown.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, signed in 1982, increased the authority of Arctic coastal states over primary shipping routes, Norchi said in a statement.

Through a specific clause in the convention — called Article 234 — these countries gained the ability to regulate the route’s maritime traffic, so long as the region remains covered in ice for most of the year, according to Norchi. This provision was supposed to ensure “the prevention, reduction and control of marine pollution from vessels,” he explained, citing the article.

Yet Norchi attested that for decades, Russia has used Article 234 for its own economic and geopolitical interests. Russian law requires all vessels that travel through the Northern Sea Route to be piloted by Russians, and they also must provide advance notice of their plans and pay tolls, he said.

Up against such heavy regulation, major shipping companies often choose to bypass the route and instead use the much longer — but cheaper and easier — trade routes through the Suez and Panama channels, according to Norchi.

If the ice near Russia’s northern coast continues to melt, so too will the country’s grasp on shipping in the Arctic, Norchi explained. While Moscow will continue to invoke Article 234, it will face opposition from the international community, he added.

“Not only that, but with melting ice, shipping will move out of Russian territorial waters and into international waters,” Norchi said. “If that happens, Russia can’t do much, because the outcome is driven by climate change and shipping economics.”

Because Arctic routes are about 30 to 50 percent shorter than Suez and Panama channel trips — reducing travel time by about 14 to 20 days — shipping companies could reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by about 24 percent, according to Lynch.

These new arteries could also offer alternatives if a ship blocks an important shipping route for an extended period, Lynch added, referring to a March 2021 incident when the vessel was stuck in the Suez Canal for six days.

“Diversifying trade routes—especially considering new routes that can’t be blocked, because they’re not channels—gives the global shipping infrastructure a lot more resilience,” Lynch said.

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