Hundreds of icebergs have drifted into North Atlantic shipping lanes this year.
While the record loss of Arctic sea ice may be a bad sign for ships navigating off the coast of Newfoundland — and have several other negative environmental effects — it could open up new, more sustainable transportation routes in northern Canada.
A study published in September in Geophysical Research Letters found that as sea ice declines, it could open up new, shorter trade routes across the Arctic Ocean.
Right now, the Arctic is mostly used for destination traffic (researchers or adventurous sightseers visiting ports up north) rather than shipping routes to Europe or Asia. Instead, ships travelling between destinations like Rotterdam in Netherlands or Yokohama in Japan take routes through the Suez and Panama canals.
Right now, a non-stop trip from Europe to East Asia takes 30 days. From New York to Japan, it takes at least 25. That's not counting the extra time it can take to navigate the locks of a canal, which can add hours or even days to the journey.
"If human greenhouse gas emissions aren’t curbed, global shipping could realistically use Arctic routes without ice-strengthened ships, and take advantage of the substantial distance saving they afford," researcher Nathanael Melia wrote for Carbon Brief.
The researchers used global climate model simulations to predict that by 2030, sea ice will likely have melted enough that the trip from Europe to East Asia will take just 22 days, as ships will be able to travel close to the North Pole. If global greenhouse gas emissions can't be lowered to meet the Paris agreement targets, that trip could take as few as 17 days.
“We know what is likely to happen to sea ice,” Melia told The New York Times. “It will reduce decade on decade, and open up vast swaths of the Arctic Ocean.”
"If human greenhouse gas emissions aren’t curbed, global shipping could realistically use Arctic routes without ice-strengthened ships."
Shorter trips through the Arctic could have huge economic implications. A 30 per cent shorter trip means huge savings in both fuel and crew salaries. Ironically, that means that global warming could make shipping better for the environment.
However, there are concerns that the heavy fuel shipping vessels use could easily damage Arctic ecosystems, The Economist reported.
And, the same drifting ice that is currently posing a risk to the North Atlantic could make shipping in the Arctic difficult, even in summer.