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Will Arctic Warming Change the International Shipping Routes?

Date: Tuesday, 22 March 2011
Time: 11 am – 12.30 pm
Venue: S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS)


Click play to listen to the audio recording of the seminar.

Speaker: Dr Pål Prestrud, Director, Center for International Climate and Environmental Research – Oslo (CICERO).
Chairperson: Assoc. Prof. Ralf Emmers, Acting Head, RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies.

The Arctic is warming at twice the average rate of global warming. The impacts on the physical environment are clearly visible, one of which is that snow and ice are melting at an increasing rate. Sea ice is the main barrier for shipping in the Arctic. However, in the last 30 years, sea ice extent has reduced by 3–4 per cent per decade. The summer minimum extent (observed in September) has decreased much more – by more than 10 per cent in the last decade. The thickness and age of the ice – which includes the hardness – have also decreased. Models project that most of the summer ice will be gone by 2060–2080 and the shipping route via the Arctic Ocean between Europe and Japan/China would then be 10–12 days shorter than the conventional route.
In this talk, Dr Pål Prestrud discussed the implications of this situation for international shipping. He argued that, due to the existence of several challenges, it is unlikely that the Northern Sea Route (a term coined by the Russians; this route is also known as the Northeast Passage) will be commercially attractive in the next few decades.
The presentation was based on the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA) conducted by the Arctic Council, a formal governmental forum established to promote cooperation among eight Arctic states. The presentation also drew from leading scientific findings on climate systems in the Arctic region.
The main Arctic shipping routes

The search for an Arctic shipping route began a few centuries ago. Explorers were drawn by the possibility of a (shorter) shipping route between Europe and Asia. Several attempts were made, the first in 1596 by William Barents. At the beginning of the 19th century, the British Navy made several forays but were unsuccessful at finding a passage through the Arctic region. These failures were attributed to the lack of adequate preparation and the size of the crews (the large numbers on the expeditions hindered their chances of survival). It was the Swedish and Norwegians who eventually succeeded in finding a shipping route through the Arctic.
There are two primary Arctic shipping routes: the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route. The Northern Sea Route along the Siberian coast is much easier to traverse than the Northwest Passage along the Canadian and Alaskan coasts. This is because the wind and the ocean current in the Arctic region push the ice towards the Canadian and Alaskan coasts, filling up the straits along the Northwest Passage, creating obstacles for ships.
Sea ice, and its extent, is an important consideration for shipping in the Arctic. The summer minimum ice extent in the Arctic is reached around September. After that, the sea starts to freeze and the ice re-expands. The maximum ice extent is reached around March, when the ice starts to melt and shrink again. The ice extent varies between 14 million square kilometres in March and 87 million square kilometres in September. The changing extent significantly affects shipping activity in the Arctic (currently, most of the activity is between local settlements, with an increase in tourist-ship traffic to the North Pole during the summer).
Arctic warming
Dr Prestrud stated that, looking at the physical evidence on the Arctic climate system, there is no doubt that there is warming both in the atmosphere and the ocean in the Arctic.
According to a NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) report, the global mean temperature anomaly, which provides a big-picture overview of average global temperatures compared to a reference value, shows a warming trend. Further, the Arctic has experienced the greatest warming compared to the rest of the world. The warming trend is projected to continue – both scientific observation and leading climate models predict that the northern part of the world will become warmer to a greater extent than the rest of the world. However, Dr Prestrud admitted that there is a degree of uncertainty associated with the general circulation model, as the model is based on current knowledge of the physical processes in the ocean and the atmosphere, and much may still not be known about such processes. Nevertheless, 20 to 35 of such models have been able to simulate fairly accurately the temperature change on Earth in the last 120 years. This provides a degree of confidence that these models will also be able to predict future warming.
The Arctic atmospheric temperature measurements of 1880–2008 show that there was a peak in the temperature in the 1930s. Although the causes of this temperature peak are not totally clear, it appears to have been caused largely by natural climatic phenomena. This teaches us the fact that there is natural variability, some of which can be cyclical.
These same measurements also show that Arctic warming is twice as large as global warming. The physical reason for this is the reflectivity of the Arctic. As snow and ice are white, 80 per cent of the solar radiation that hits the surface is reflected back into space. However, if there is black surface or open water, 80 per cent of the solar radiation is absorbed as heat. The melting of snow reveals the black surface of the earth, causing an amplifying effect where the heat trapped accelerates the melting of the ice. Such a phenomenon is known as Arctic amplification. However, although it is generally thought that Arctic warming is mostly caused by changes in reflectivity, the scientific discussion of this phenomenon is still ongoing.
The influx of warm water into the Arctic basin (which comes mainly from the Atlantic) also has to be factored in. This water has a temperature of about 3 to 4 degrees Celcius whereas the surface water is minus 1 degree Celcius. The ocean water itself freezes at about minus 1.8 degrees Celcius. In 2007, there was a special case of a lot of warm water coming into the Arctic combined with warm weather with few clouds blocking solar radiation from reaching the earth. This confluence of phenomena increased heat absorption and the melting of the sea ice in the Arctic.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) business-as-usual climate change (emissions) scenarios also support the argument that warming is likely to occur more in the north than the rest of the globe. The implications of this warming for Arctic ice include the following:
  • The sea ice freezes in the winter, but as it is quite thin, it will easily melt during the summer.
  • The age composition of the floating sea ice will change: the old-year ice becomes much thicker and harder (3–5 metres) than first-year ice (1–2 metres).
  • The thickness of sea ice will decrease. There has been a 15–20 per cent reduction of sea ice thickness since the 1960s. Note, though, that the melting of this floating ice does not contribute to sea level rise, which is caused only by the melting of land-based ice sheets.
Almost all six current IPCC models predict that the minimum sea ice extent will be much diminished by September 2050. However, there are uncertainties associated with these models – observations of sea ice extent reveal that it is shrinking faster than the predictions indicate. This suggests that the physics and the dynamics of the melting process are still not well understood (since the models are just a reflection of current understanding of the physical processes involved). The uncertainties inherent in climate models – mentioned earlier in connection with the general circulation model – would be one of the challenges that scientists have to contend with.
Another factor that has to be recognised is the melting effect from underneath, which is caused more by warmer sea water than warming in the atmosphere. As noted earlier, ocean currents help determine sea ice extent. In addition, the present melting rates create changes in atmospheric wind direction. Such changes alter the dynamics of weather patterns in the Arctic, which in turn affect sea ice extent and distribution.
The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment outlines the impact of Arctic warming on shipping routes. The melting sea ice reveals open water for shipping routes, which will create more shipping opportunities in the future during the warm spring and summer months. However, there are currently few ports and limited infrastructure to support shipping – for instance, emergency preparedness and response capacity is lacking. This has implications for the environment.
Dr Prestrud asserted that the Arctic environment is vulnerable. People tend to think that there is not much life in the Arctic. However, this is a misconception. There are many organisms unique to the Arctic and connected to the ice or the Arctic tundra. The ice ecosystem even extends to underneath the ice, where there are, for instance, algae that are crucial to the survival of the other Arctic organisms. This ecosystem is vulnerable to human activities such as oil pollution from shipping activities. However, due to the lack of support infrastructure, there is currently little capacity to handle oil spills and pollution in the Arctic.
Ice and the lack of infrastructure will continue to represent major obstacles for shipping in the future. Other obstacles are the narrow straits and shallow waters. The shipping industry will have to take these into consideration, especially since the ice tends to be very mobile in open water due to wind (or storms) and ocean currents.
Political aspects also affect the opening of shipping routes. Tensions over maritime jurisdictions and boundaries in the Arctic occur when Arctic states claim new economic zones. There are also areas where negotiation has taken place without any resolution, such as the dispute between Canada and Denmark. Disputes also revolve around identifying international and national waters.
The untapped petroleum resources in the Arctic, estimated to be a quarter of Earth’s remaining oil resources, could also be a potential source of conflict. The growing accessibility of the Arctic coupled with increasing oil price will create a new dynamic for activities in the Arctic. Attempts to access the Arctic in order to tap its resources could lead to new pressures.
Summary of main points
Dr Prestrud concluded his presentation by highlighting the main points:
  • Ice and the lack of infrastructure will be the major obstacles for shipping in the future. There will be a need for ice-strengthened ships and icebreakers for many years.
  • Arctic natural resource development (hydrocarbons, hard minerals and fisheries) and regional trade are the key drivers of future Arctic marine activity.
  • Most likely, major trans-Arctic shipping activity would not become a reality in the next several decades, although there could be an increase in the number of ships attempting to go through the Arctic during the summer.
  • The 2007 special case which saw a minimum sea ice extent that surprised scientists could be seen as a warning that the sea ice could disappear much faster than it is doing today. However, Dr Prestrud believes that the sea ice will continue to melt along predicted lines.

With regard to recommendations from the scientific community, Dr Prestrud pointed to the 2009 AMSA which targets politicians in the Arctic Council. The assessment recommends more studies before proceeding with the development of shipping routes. The recommendations not only suggest safeguarding the Arctic environment, but also highlight the need to ensure the safety of ships and crews by developing the necessary infrastructure to make routes safe and secure.
Dr Prestrud asserted that huge investment is required – to develop ships that can move through the Arctic, to provide the necessary infrastructure to support the shipping industry, and to ensure appropriate emergency preparedness and response capacity. The Northern Sea Route cannot become a major transport route without these facilities. Initial investment on icebreakers would also be required. Currently, there are atomic icebreakers keeping the sea open for the commercial transport activities along some Northern Sea Route passages. Also, the shipping industry has to develop more experience in operating within the environmental constraints posed by the Arctic such as short days, bad weather conditions, etc. Thus, more open water (as a result of warming and melting) is only one part of the equation. Technology, infrastructure and human resources will all have to improve markedly for Arctic routes to become significant in global shipping.
Dr Prestrud stated while there may be a lack of infrastructure along the Northern Sea Route at the moment, the presence of significant untapped mineral reserves in the area (in Greenland, for example) will serve to encourage development. Multiple projects are currently underway that explore the commercial potential of mineral and oil and gas resources in the Arctic, along with the development of Arctic shipping routes. It will take several years before major routes for tankers and larger shipping activities become a reality. There is also ongoing discussion on the possibility of Russia developing Arctic ports.
Dr Prestrud also touched on whether increased shipping activity would affect the ice. There is no indication that the increased use of icebreakers and commercial transports has had an impact on the ice extent or the thickness. Although a reduction of ice has occurred both in the sea ice and the snow core in the northern hemisphere, these may be attributed to other causes. Arctic amplification is one explanation for the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, which is shrinking at a rate of 200–300 billion tons of ice and water per year. The melting is accelerating and this, coupled with the melting snow from the Antarctic of about 1.3–1.5 millimetres per year, contributes to sea level rise. The warming and melting in Greenland is argued to be also caused by transfer of heat from the ocean current and atmospheric wind from the south. Although the causes are still being discussed by the scientific community, Dr Prestrud states that there is a fair degree of certainty that the melting of snow and sea ice amplifies the warming in the Arctic and has an effect on the melting of the Greenland ice sheet which in turn contributes to sea level rise.
Finally, Dr Prestrud suggested that China is playing quite a significant role in developments in Arctic shipping. China obviously has great interest in the polar areas. It has been an Arctic Council observer for a number of years; and it has established a scientific institution for polar research and a permanent station in Antarctica, as well as a research station in the Arctic. In addition, it has been producing icebreakers. Other Asian countries have also built research stations in the Arctic, namely India, South Korea and Japan. Dr Prestrud commented that historical evidence suggests that countries express their political interest in the polar areas by establishing a presence in those areas (through building research stations).

About the speaker:

Pål Prestrud has been Director of CICERO in Oslo for nine years. CICERO was established by the University of Oslo in 1990 and conducts research on adaptation to climate change and mitigation of anthropogenic global warming. Prestrud has spent most of his career as a scientist and environmental manager in the polar areas. He received his Master’s in 1982 and his PhD in 1992 on physiological and ecological adaptation by arctic mammals to the harsh climate conditions of the polar areas, after spending ten field seasons on the Arctic tundra. Prestrud has been involved in environmental management and research in the polar areas for the Norwegian Polar Institute, the Ministry of Environment and the Governor of the high-Arctic archipelago of Svalbard before he became Director of CICERO. Throughout a period of more than 30 years, he has watched closely how warming of the Arctic in combination with political changes and technological development have opened up the Arctic for economic exploitation and development.


Posted on: 22/3/2011 11:00:00 AM  |  Topic: Climate Change, Environmental Security and Natural Disasters

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