Dissappearing Arctic Ice Brings the Potential for Commercial Shipping

The Arctic is one of the few remaining natural environments that has not been overly influenced by humans.  Unfortunately, this is likely to change in the near future.  The impacts of climate change are increasingly being felt in the North where increases in temperature could be as much as 40% more than the global mean (O.M. Johannessen et al. 2004).  Ice extent and thickness are also decreasing at an unprecedented rate.  The amount of multiyear ice that persists over a period of many years decreased at a rate of roughly 7% per year between 1978 and 1998 (O.M. Johannessen et al,1999).  These reductions in sea ice will make the Arctic much more accessible to humans.  There are many untapped resources in the Arctic that people will be interested in exploiting, including oil and gas reserves.  The Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route are also set to become potentially viable routes for commercial shipping.  Indeed the first commercial ship traveled along the Northwest Passage in 2008 (CBC News, 2008).  The ice that has made it generally impassible for the majority of human history is disappearing in the summer months.  These northern trade routes have the potential to save millions of dollars in shipping costs, though not without consequences.

Change in sea ice concentration between 1978 and 2003 for winter (c) and summer (d) (O.M. Johannessen et al. 2004)

As with most things there are trade-offs to commercial shipping in the Arctic.  A variety of different ships could potentially make their way through these routes, including oil tankers.  The world has seen the problems that can result from massive quantities of oil being released in the water, the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989 and more recently British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 are just two examples.  The Arctic’s ecosystem relies heavily on the productivity of its marine environment.  Therefore, if an oil spill did occur it would have ramifications across the entire ecosystem. The Arctic inherently has waterways that are difficult to navigate, particularly with the increasing amounts of less stable single year ice floating around.  It is a rather large risk to allow commercial shipping in these waters without taking proper mitigation measures.

This is where Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) could potentially play a role.  A study could be undertaken attempting to assess the impact of opening shipping routes in the Arctic.  It is difficult to determine who would be responsible for undertaking this study; it would likely have to be some sort of international collaboration (which is a big enough task in itself).  The results of this study would allow for recommendations to be made in order to reduce potential environmental impacts.  Examples of recommendations could be restricting shipping to certain times of the year (even though sea ice more or less has this covered), regulating what cargo can be taken through these passages, or standards that ships destined for these routes need to comply with.  Shipping in the Arctic is likely to become a common occurrence in the near future.  It is prudent to plan ahead and allow for mitigation measures to be put into place before a potentially serious environmental disaster occurs.


CBC News, . “1st commercial ship sails through Northwest Passage.” CBC News Canada. CBC News, 28 Nov 2008. Web. Accessed: 09 Nov 2011. <http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/story/2008/11/28/nwest-vessel.html&gt;.

Johannessen, Ola M, Elena Shalina, and Martin Miles. “Satellite Evidence for an Arctic Sea Ice Cover in Transformation.” Science 286.5446 (1999): 1937-1939.

Johannessen, Ola M, Lennart Bengtsson, Martin Miles, Svetlana Kuzmina, Vladimir Semenov, Genrikh Alekseev, Andrei Nagurnyi, Victor Zakharov, Leonid Bobylev, Lasse Pettersson, Klaus Hasselmann and Howard Cattle. “Arctic climate change: observed and modelled temperature and sea-ice variability.” Tellus. 56. (2004): 328-341.

Standen Amy, and Cleo Paskal. Opening Arctic Trade Routes. 2010. Video. Youtube. Web. Accessed 09 Nov 2011. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1RHhFZ_tTSE&gt;.


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