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Study: New Trans-Arctic shipping routes navigable by midcentury

Fastest Trans-Arctic navigation routes during September at present (2006-2015) and by midcentury (2040-2059) with RCP 4.5, for ships seeking to cross the Arctic Ocean between the North Atlantic and the Pacific.  Red lines indicate fastest available routes for Polar Class 6 icebreakers; blue lines indicate fastest available routes for common open-water ships.

Fastest Trans-Arctic navigation routes during September at present
(2006-2015) and by midcentury (2040-2059) with RCP 4.5, for ships
seeking to cross the Arctic Ocean between the North Atlantic and the
Pacific. Red lines indicate fastest available routes for Polar Class
6 icebreakers; blue lines indicate fastest available routes for common
open-water ships.

A new study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Dr. Laurence Smith and Scott Stephenson of UCLA’s Geography Department reports that new trans-Arctic shipping routes will be navigable during the summer by midcentury.

The authors found that first, common open-water ships will be able to transit the Northern Sea Route (NSR) during September by midcentury (2040-2059). The optimal route — that is, the fastest route that avoids thick and/or concentrated sea ice — between Rotterdam and the Bering Strait will also begin shifting farther north from the Russian coast. The technical feasibility of transiting the NSR in September rises from 40 percent during the 1979-2005 period to 94 percent under an assumption of increasing but eventually stabilizing levels of CO2 equivalent emissions (RCP 4.5). Transit feasibility is 98 percent under a more extreme climate scenario in which emissions continue to increase beyond 2011 (RCP 8.5). The northward shift of the optimal Europe-Asia route is interesting because it could mean that vessels might be able to avoid paying Russian escort fees. Yet at the same time, the fact that ships might be able to skirt the NSR means that they might be taking greater risks by not having icebreaker escorts. Not only would shipping possibly be dicier: The farther distance from shore also means that search and rescue efforts would be more complicated in the case of a disaster. Already Russia, together with Alaska, faces a similar problem on its far eastern coastline along the Bering Strait. There are few regulations governing ships that pass through the transit but do not stop in either Russia or Alaska, as they have the right of innocent passage. Alaskan Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell has pointed out that this loophole will need to be solved bilaterally. With the heightening possibility of more ships sailing ever farther north even into the Arctic Ocean itself, Smith and Stephenson emphasize the urgent need for creating an International Maritime Organization (IMO) framework with essentially a robust polar code. The IMO is still drafting the polar code and will meet next month to discuss its status, though it may not be finished before 2015. While more delays wouldn’t come as a surprise, let’s hope that they don’t stretch to 2050.

Second, the optimal route for Polar Class 6 (PC6) vessels between the Bering Strait and Rotterdam will shift dramatically northward to cross the North Pole. PC6 vessels are defined as those that can operate in the summer and autumn through medium, first-year ice with old ice inclusions. With the ice becoming thin enough in the summer for PC6 ships to sail through, the great circle route — the shortest distance between two points on the globe — over the North Pole will be navigable. Of course, it is important to remember that most shipping is not done using PC6 vessels, and most shipowners still do not have any plans for Arctic shipping, according to a 2011 study by Frederic Lasserre of Laval University in Canada. When he surveyed almost 100 firms over whether they were considering shipping in the Arctic, 17 said yes, 70 said no, and 10 said maybe. While 2050 may seem like a long ways away, it takes years to build up a fleet, especially expensive polar class ships. Thus, the ships might not come knocking on the North Pole’s door until even after 2050.

For these same PC6 vessels, the optimal route between the Bering Strait and North America (specifically St. John’s, Newfoundland) will transit the Northwest Passage (NWP) — not the NSR. However, the Russian route will still dominate traffic between Europe and Asia, which is already its main market for non-destinational shipping. Thus, the opening up of the NWP does not necessarily threaten the potential for the development of the NSR. The real threat to Russia gaining economically from operating the route is that outlined above — the optimization of more northern routes that bypass its shores and ports. At the same time, insurance companies might not cover ships that choose to sail farther north of Russia, which might cause them to ultimately stick closer to shore and pay the escort fees.

Third, the NWP will become more navigable than it is at present. From 1979-2005, the probability of September passage was 15 percent. By 2040-2059, the chances will be 53 percent and 60 percent under the moderate and extreme climate scenarios, respectively. These figures are still not as high as those for the NSR, but the marked increase in probabilities means that Canada might want to begin considering developing long-term infrastructure plans for northern shipping. As Scott and Stephenson mention, it might also behoove Canada and the U.S. to resolve their dispute over the status of the waters within the NWP — whether they are internal waters or a territorial strait — sooner rather than later.

Details on the climate change scenarios


Two different climate change scenarios using representative concentration pathways (RCPs) were incorporated into the model. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) uses RCPs to model climate change and describes them as “time-dependent projections of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations,” measured by radiative forcing, which itself is quantified by watts per square meter. The higher the number, the greater the difference there is between incoming and outgoing energy at the tropopause.

The first scenario, representative concentration pathway (RCP) 4.5,  is a “stabilization” pathway, where the amount of CO2 equivalent increases but then levels off by the turn of the next century. RCP 8.5, the more extreme pathway used in the model, assumes radiative forcing will continue to increase beyond 2100. More information about RCPs is available in an RCP report here.



Mia Bennett

Mia Bennett is pursuing a PhD in Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She received her MPhil (with Distinction) in Polar Studies from the University of Cambridge's Scott Polar Research Institute, where she was a Gates Scholar.

Mia examines how climate change is reshaping the geopolitics of the Arctic through an investigation of scientific endeavors, transportation and trade networks, governance, and natural resource development. Her masters dissertation investigated the extent of an Asian-Arctic region, focusing on the activities of Korea, China, and Japan in the circumpolar north. Mia's work has appeared in ReNew Canada, Water Canada, FACTA, and Baltic Rim Economies, among other publications.

She speaks French, Swedish, and is learning Russian.

Follow her on Twitter @miageografia

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