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Future Arctic Sea Lanes

March 8, 2013

Two UCLA geographers have used various climate models to predict the locations and seasonal longevity of Arctic sea lanes in both the near and middle term futures.  From the abstract:

Recent historic observed lows in Arctic sea ice extent, together with climate model projections of additional ice reductions in the future, have fueled speculations of potential new trans-Arctic shipping routes linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. However, numerical studies of how projected geophysical changes in sea ice will realistically impact ship navigation are lacking. To address this deficiency, we analyze seven climate model projections of sea ice properties, assuming two different climate change scenarios [representative concentration pathways (RCPs) 4.5 and 8.5] and two vessel classes, to assess future changes in peak season (September) Arctic shipping potential. By midcentury, changing sea ice conditions enable expanded September navigability for common open-water ships crossing the Arctic along the Northern Sea Route over the Russian Federation, robust new routes for moderately ice-strengthened (Polar Class 6) ships over the North Pole, and new routes through the Northwest Passage for both vessel classes. Although numerous other nonclimatic factors also limit Arctic shipping potential, these findings have important economic, strategic, environmental, and governance implications for the region.

Arctic Shipping Routes

The opening of the Arctic to even seasonal maritime activity will represent the greatest geopolitical earthquake of our time; perhaps of all time.  The northern shores of Asia and North America have always been impervious to maritime assault; for the first time in human history, that is about to change, with new threats and opportunities for all.

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