Climate change will open up surprising new Arctic shipping routes
“Right now, the Arctic Ocean is still too icy and treacherous for open-water ships to traverse with any regularity. The Northwest Passage is only navigable during the summer months once every seven years or so. Too unreliable for commercial shipping.
But that will soon change. As the planet keeps warming, the Arctic’s summer sea ice is vanishing at a stunning pace. That rapid melt is expected to have all sorts of sweeping impacts, from speeding up climate change to wreaking havoc on weather patterns. On the flip side, the loss of sea ice could also open up some potentially lucrative new trade routes between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, led by UCLA geographer Laurence Smith, looks at how the Arctic will change under even modest levels of global warming. Through computer simulations, the researchers found that open-water vessels will be able to, in theory, cross the Northwest Passage and North Sea Route regularly in the summer by 2050 without icebreakers. And icebreaker ships may be able to ram right through the North Pole:
The blue lines show the fastest routes available for common open-water ships during the summer, while the red lines show routes available for Polar Class 6 ships with moderate icebreaker capacity. By 2040-2059, there are many more routes.
The change here is quite striking. Right now, no commercial shipping goes through the Northwest Passage that hugs northern Canada. Yet by mid-century, those routes could potentially be clear for open-water vessels every other summer. Likewise, the Northern Sea Route that hugs Russia is projected to be open in late summer 90 percent of the time, up from 40 percent today.”
Why do polar bears matter? The Pacific Standard Magazine has published one of the most moving pieces I’ve read in a long, long while. It’s long been known that polar bears are endangered, and that the core reason is loss of habitat - sea-ice.
The bears are unique. We revere them not just because they’re cute and cuddly. But because they are masters of the environment, masters of “child care,” and just overall really fucking resilient animals. They depend on sea-ice for hunting food on a seasonal basis, which is a hard concept to wrap our heads around. But the bottom line is that sea-ice is disappearing as the earth warms, and the bears are not adapting their hunting techniques as fast as the ice is melting.
So, again, why do they matter? Author Zach Unger speculates on the answer:
And what we notice when we stare at these bears is that they’re a lot like us. They’re smart and tough and they nurture their young. They’re cute and cuddly and unpredictably ferocious. They’re the top of the food chain, they’re without natural predators.
This isn’t some red-legged frog, warty and swamp-dwelling, that faces annihilation. This is a master predator, a carnivore, with hands and feet and hair. This bear is the boss. So when we think about polar bears going extinct, it’s not their absence that worries us; it’s our own. And because it’s our fault—and because it may be our future—the bears have become the most important animals on earth. After ourselves, of course.
Zach’s piece includes a slideshow, interactive maps and charts, and a video covering the challenges polar bears face. We are witnessing - indeed cataloging every step - of the polar bear’s extinction.
As we end 2012 and reflect on what has been, this article (one of the best I’ve read in a long while) is a sober glimpse into the future of what is to be.
Just came across this polar bear documentary by the BBC. Pace is a bit slow, but still pretty good.
Documentary revealing the way of life for the worlds largest land carnivore as its never been seen before. A mother polar bear and her cub emerge from their snow den in the Arctic to enter a hostile world of sub-zero temperatures and limited food supplies. Ice is the battleground, polar bears and seals are mortal enemies, and survival is on a knife edge. Narrated by Sanjeev Bhaskar.
That’s a new image from our buds at NASA, showing the Arctic ice cap, a sort of white-capped on our blue home. If you have faith in your internet connection, you can view an 11,000 x 11,000 pixel version here.
NASA’s new Suomi NPP satellite started sending images back to Earth this year, and they are stunning. We were even treated to an updated 2012 version of the iconic Blue Marble shot (which you really must see). But as the detailed images of our planet’s climate and atmosphere roll in, so does the worry that we may be capturing a few views for the last time.
Each summer, Arctic sea ice melts and recedes to a certain degree due to higher temperatures. But over the past few decades, the melting has gotten faster and more severe (the 2011 melt was a record low). Don’t believe me? Check out this video from NASA showing the change in summer ice from the past 32 years.
Climate change models have predicted the complete loss of summer ice in the Arctic by 2070 or so. But as this years melt begins, hot and fast, 2030 is looking like a real possibility for an ice-free Arctic. That means that in as little as 20 years, this photo could be a look into the past instead of the present.
The Arctic is heating at twice the rate of the rest of the world. Why? The albedo effect. This video explains what that effect is and what will happen if the melting trends continue. Well worth your time.
The Arctic’s glaciers, including those of Greenland’s vast ice cap, are retreating. The land is thawing: the area covered by snow in June is roughly a fifth less than in the 1960s. The permafrost is shrinking. Alien plants, birds, fish and animals are creeping north: Atlantic mackerel, haddock and cod are coming up in Arctic nets. Some Arctic species will probably die out. Perhaps not since the 19th-century clearance of America’s forests has the world seen such a spectacular environmental change. It is a stunning illustration of global warming, the cause of the melt. It also contains grave warnings of its dangers. The world would be mad to ignore them.
Massive Phytoplankton Bloom Discovered Under Arctic Sea Ice
Scientists have made a biological discovery in Arctic Ocean waters as dramatic and unexpected as finding a rainforest in the middle of a desert. A NASA-sponsored expedition punched through three-foot thick sea ice to find waters richer in microscopic marine plants, essential to all sea life, than any other ocean region on Earth.
The discovery is the result of an oceanographic expedition called ICESCAPE, or Impacts of Climate on EcoSystems and Chemistry of the Arctic Pacific Environment. The NASA-sponsored mission explored the seas along Alaska’s western and northern coasts onboard a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker during the summers of 2010 and 2011. The finding reveals a new consequence of the Arctic’s warming climate and provides an important clue to understanding the impacts of a changing climate and environment on the Arctic Ocean and its ecology.
This video is public domain and can be downloaded at: http://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/goto?10907
We have just passed the annual maximum in Arctic sea ice extent which always occurs sometime in March. Within a month we will reach the annual maximum in Arctic sea ice volume. After that, the sea ice will begin its course towards its annual minimum of both extent and volume in mid-September. This marks the beginning of the ritual of the annual sea ice watch that includes predictions of the extent and rank of this year’s sea ice minimum, as well as discussion about the timing of its eventual demise. One of the inputs into that discussion is the “PIOMAS” ice-ocean model output of ice volume – and in particular, some high-profile extrapolations. This is worth looking at in some detail.
Prediction methods for the sea ice minima range from ad-hoc guesses to model predictions, from statistical analyses to water-cooler speculation in the blogosphere. Many of these predictions are compiled in the SEARCH-sponsored “sea ice outlook“.
This year’s discussions however will be without the input of the father of modern sea ice physics, Norbert Untersteiner, who recently died at the age of 86. Much of the physics in PIOMAS and global climate models can be traced to Norbert’s influence. Norbert was sober-minded and skeptical about the prospects of skillful short-term sea ice predictions, but even he couldn’t help but be drawn into the dubious excitement around the precipitous decline of arctic sea ice and regularly added his own guestimate to the sea ice outlook. Norbert’s legacy challenges those of us who engage in predictions to prove our skill and to understand and explain the limitations of our techniques so they are not used erroneously to misinform the public or to influence policy…more about that later and…
These animations shows the motion of ice in Antarctica as measured by satellite data from the Canadian Space Agency, the Japanese Space Agency and the European Space Agency, and processed by NASA-funded research from the University of California, Irvine. The background image from the Landsat satellite is progressively replaced by a map of ice velocity, which is color-coded on a logarithmic scale.
A blog about the interactions between the built environment, people, and nature.
I'm a climate change consultant specializing in climate adaptation, environmental law, and urban planning based in the U.S. In addition to traveling and hiking, I research, publish, and lecture on how cities can adapt to climate change.
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