Ice melt puts Arctic in play for shipping

WASHINGTON – In a twist to the debate over global warming, melting Arctic sea ice is making it easier to transport the fossil fuels that produce the planet-warming gases, which appear to be causing it to thaw in the first place.

As a result, a record number of tankers have gained access to an emerging shipping route, creating a potential industrial boon in the remote Arctic.

The increasingly ice-free route runs from Europe to Asian markets through the Bering Strait, which divides Alaska and Russia. It can be 40 percent shorter than the southern alternative of shipping through the Suez Canal.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has vowed to turn it into one of the world’s “key trade routes of international significance in scale,” as Russia moves to export Arctic oil and gas to China and other hungry economies in the Far East.

Arctic sea ice melted to a record low in September, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, when ice covered just 24 percent of the Arctic Ocean, compared with at least twice that amount three decades ago.

Norway’s oil minister, Ola Borten Moe, said that if the melting trend continues, he foresees a time when a range of cargo broader than the current petroleum products, iron ore and coal would be transported through Arctic waters along the route.

“This could change the dynamics between Europe and Asia,” he said.

Just four vessels completed the northern sea route from Europe to Asia in 2010. But the traffic has jumped tenfold since – at least 46 vessels sailed the route this season, according to the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development – and it’s expected to increase with continued Arctic development.

A milestone came earlier in December, when Russian energy giant Gazprom announced that it had completed the world’s first liquefied natural-gas cargo delivery across the Arctic through the northern sea route.

Sea ice melt also is helping open a Northwest Passage route along the Canadian and Alaskan Arctic coasts. But that has bigger challenges than the northern sea route that transits the European Arctic. The northern sea route has less ice and superior depth, the Alaska Legislature noted in a 2012 report.

“Therefore, it is anticipated that will be the preferred Arctic sea lane,” the report concluded.

Alaska, like Europe, has hopes for economic benefits from the melting ice, including easier access for Arctic oil and tourism, as well as the potential for expanded fisheries. The state also hopes to develop a shipping hub that services vessels traveling in the northern waters.

But there are dangers, and not just for polar bears, which are listed as a threatened species because of the projected habitat loss from melting sea ice.

“With increased shipping and marine traffic comes risk of vessel groundings, spills, collisions, pollutants, noise disturbances and invasive species,” said the 2012 report from the Alaska Legislature’s Northern Waters Task Force. “This risk is particularly high due to lack of detailed navigational charts, reliable weather forecasting, vessel traffic separation protocols, and search and rescue infrastructure.”

The main force behind development of the northern sea route is global energy economics, said Lawson Brigham, a polar shipping expert and University of Alaska Fairbanks professor.

“What’s driving this traffic is natural resource development in Russia and northern Norway,” said Brigham, a former icebreaker captain. “Those cargoes are carried across the top of Eurasia to China, other countries in East Asia. But the primary client is China.”

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