Thanks to Global Warming, Arctic Shipping Has Quadrupled in the Past Year

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
July 23 2013 1:53 PM

Thanks to Global Warming, Arctic Shipping Has Quadrupled in the Past Year

A nuclear icebreaker on its way to the North Pole in 2001.
A nuclear icebreaker on its way to the North Pole in 2001.

Wofratz / Wikimedia Commons

For years people have been speculating that the melting of Arctic sea ice due to climate change would open new shipping lanes. In fact, it’s happening now.

The Financial Times reports that, as of Friday, 204 ships had received permits this year to ply the Northern Sea Route, which connects East Asia to Europe via the waters off of Russia’s northern coast. Last year, just 46 vessels made the trip. Two years ago, the number was four.

Illustration by Bobamnertiopsis / Wikimedia Commons

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For now, the route remains more treacherous than the traditional Asia-Europe passage via the Suez Canal. But as Arctic sea ice continues to recede, it will become increasingly viable during the summer months—especially since, as the map at right shows, it’s a much shorter route. The captain of a Russian icebreaker fleet told the FT that the trip from Kobe or Busan to Rotterdam should be 23 days via the northern passage, versus 33 days via the canal. And recent studies suggest that the long-sought Northwest Passage off of Canada’s north coast is likely to open for business in the decades to come as well.

Those looking for upsides to global climate change might count this as one—if they’re fans of Russia, the country best-positioned to capitalize. As Climate Central’s Andrew Freedman recently pointed out, the United States is essentially helpless in the Arctic, with zero Navy surface ships capable of navigating the icy waters and the Senate unwilling to ratify the UN convention that facilitates diplomacy in the region. That’s a big concern, given that the new shipping routes come with dangers ranging from lost lives to environmentally disastrous spills to territorial disputes.

As the Economist put it in a special report last year, there are some benefits to the melting of the Arctic—but the risks are much greater.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

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