In just a couple of decades, some Arctic regions that were previously covered with year-round ice could be ice-free for months. American researchers reported in the specialized journal “PNAS” that this threatens the survival of many species, but also opens new, shorter and therefore more environmentally friendly routes for merchant ships bypassing the Russian-controlled Northern Sea Route.
They demand that international shipping systems adapt to the conditions now expected.
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Big swings but a clear trend
“There is no scenario in which the melting of Arctic ice is good news,” said lead author Amanda Lynch of Brown University. “But the unfortunate reality is that the ice is already receding, these roads are opening up, and we need to start thinking critically about the legal, environmental and geopolitical implications.”
With the help of models, the researchers calculated how the Arctic ice cover would evolve over the coming decades under different emission scenarios. Specifically: How high is the probability in the years between 2015 and 2065 that the area will be ice-free for at least 32 consecutive days. Possible new routes from Rotterdam towards the Bering Strait include the Northwest Passage along the east coast of Greenland through the Davis Strait or the Transpolar Route between Greenland and Iceland.
As expected, the data shows that the probability of continued ice-free conditions increases over time across all scenarios. As high emissions and energy-intensive lifestyles persist worldwide, the likelihood of a navigable season outside Russian waters increases by about 30 percent. In the lowest emission scenario, it is unlikely that the passage will be possible until mid-century. However, fluctuations from year to year are significant in the accounts.
Profound implications for maritime trade and shipping in the Arctic
The researchers focus their work primarily on the effects of climate change on Article 234 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This gives Arctic countries such as Canada and Russia control over the movement of shipping in the waters in order to reduce pollution of the waters or coasts from ships.
According to the authors, Russia used this right in the past mainly to assert economic and geopolitical interests. For example, Russian law states that all ships navigating the Northern Sea Route must be commanded by Russians. Shipping companies will also have to pay high fees and register their travel plans. This causes many companies to switch to longer routes, for example through the Suez Canal or Panama.
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However, the validity of Article 234 will be limited in the future, the researchers say. It is only valid as long as the area is covered with ice most of the year. The international community will debate Russia’s control of the maritime area in the future – or the encroachment of the Russian maritime area. “As the ice melts, ships will move from Russian territorial waters to international waters,” says co-author Charles Norchy of the University of Maine School of Law in Portland. Russia can do little about it.
According to previous studies, Arctic paths are shorter and faster, the researchers wrote. Shipping companies can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions while saving money and time. The consequences of climate change and the legal consequences of Arctic shipping and global maritime trade are far-reaching.
“Addressing these impending changes now may prevent it from developing into a crisis that needs to be resolved quickly, and that never ends well,” Lynch said. “Forging international agreements with some foresight and thought is certainly the best way.”