A new study by US climate scientists at Brown University and Maine School of Law found that parts of the Arctic Ocean previously covered in ice all year round will likely become “reliably ice-free for months on end” over the next two decades.
While they warned that the rapidly heating climate would spell disaster for countless species in the Arctic, the potential for shorter maritime trade routes would expand, allowing for “more eco-friendly” shipping.
That could also provide new trade routes which bypass the Russian-controlled Northern Sea Route.
“There’s no scenario in which melting ice in the Arctic is good news,” said Amanda Lynch, the study’s lead author and 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.”
The research team modelled four navigation scenarios based on four likely outcomes of global efforts to halt the worsening climate crisis.
Their projections revealed that unless global leaders successfully constrain warming to 1.5C over the next 43 years, the impacts of a rapidly heating world will likely open up several new routes through international waters by the middle of this century.
Study co-author Charles Norchi, director of the Centre for Oceans and Coastal Law at Maine Law, said those changes could have major implications for world trade and global politics.
He said since 1982, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea has given Arctic coastal states enhanced authority over primary shipping routes. Article 234 of the convention states that in the name of “the prevention, reduction and control of marine pollution from vessels”, countries whose coastlines are near Arctic shipping routes can regulate the route’s maritime traffic, so long as the area remains ice-covered for most of the year.
Professor Norchi said that for decades, Russia has used Article 234 for its own economic and geopolitical interests.
He noted that one Russian law requires all vessels passing through the Northern Sea Route to be piloted by Russians. The country also requires passing vessels to pay tolls and provide advance notice of their plans to use the route.
The highly regulated route is one among many reasons why major shipping companies often choose to bypass the regulations and high costs and instead use the Suez and Panama canals, which are longer, but in many cases cheaper and easier, trade routes.
But as the ice near Russia’s northern coast begins to melt, Professor Norchi said, so will the country’s grip on shipping through the Arctic Ocean.
“The Russians will, I’m sure, continue to invoke Article 234, which they will attempt to back up with their might,” Professor Norchi said.
“But they will be challenged by the international community because Article 234 will cease to be applicable if there’s no ice-covered area for most of the year. Not only that, but with melting ice, shipping will move out of Russian territorial waters and into international waters. If that happens, Russia can’t do much, because the outcome is driven by climate change and shipping economics.”
Previous studies have shown that Arctic routes are 30 to 50 per cent shorter than the Suez and Panama canal routes, with shipping times reduced by around 14 to 20 days.
The researchers said this means that if international Arctic waters warm up enough to open new pathways, shipping companies could reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by about 24 per cent while also saving money and time.
“These potential new Arctic routes are a useful thing to consider when you recall the moment when the Ever Given ship was stranded in the Suez Canal, blocking an important shipping route for several weeks,” Professor Lynch said.
“Diversifying trade routes, especially considering new routes that can’t be blocked, because they’re not canals, gives the global shipping infrastructure a lot more resiliency.”
The research is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.