environment | March 04, 2013

Melting Arctic Sea Ice And The New Northwest Passage: Laurence C. Smith

According to environment speaker Laurence C. Smith, our changing climate is poised to redefine the way the global economy ships its goods. "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," Smith writes in a new report. The melting sea ice will provide "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." In the paper, published earlier this week on the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences website, Smith and his co-writer Scott R. Stephenson examine the way climate change will shift Arctic shipping routes. So far, the results have gotten a great deal of traction in the media, appearing in dozens of major outlets internationally.

The author of The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilizations Northern Future, Smith has extensively studied the changes taking place in the Arctic and how those changes will effect the rest of the world. The Los Angeles Times says that his report predicts that "shipping lanes linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans are likely to open between 2040 and 2059." Smith and his team came to this prediction, as explained in The Guardian, by taking "two classes of vessels and then [simulating] whether they would be able to steam through the sea ice expected in seven different climate models. In each case they found that the sea routes opened up considerably after 2049." This is a result of the shrinking Arctic sea ice—which shrank to its smallest extent on record this past summer. The ice has the potential to become thin enough to make traveling through the "northern sea route" more practical, and even sailing over the north pole itself more feasible for some ships. "Currently, the Northwest Passage is theoretically navigable once every seven years, making it an impractical trade route," the LA Times reports. "By midcentury, however, researchers predicted that it would be accessible roughly every other year."

Just because the ability to travel these Arctic routes will become more feasible, Smith explains that there are many other impediments which may restrict these routes from being heavily used. While the potential use of these routes could save shipowners a great deal of time and money, there are also negative side effects that must be kept in mind. It can potentially decrease the cost of trade between Europe and China, but also raises various economic, strategic and environmental challenges. Smith, who also sat on the World Economic Forum's new Global Agenda Council on the Arctic, explores these challenges and opportunities in his talks and media appearances.

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