* Cross-the-pole route would be limited to light
* Arctic ice shrinkage speeding up as less sunlight is
* Access to land areas diminishing as swampy land thaws
By Environment Correspondent Deborah Zabarenko
WASHINGTON, March 4 The quickest way to get
goods from Asia to the U.S. East Coast in 2050 might well be
straight across the Arctic, where a warming climate is expected
to open new sea routes through what is now impenetrable ice, a
study reported on Monday.
Most shipping traffic between these two centers currently
goes through the Suez or Panama canals, and that is likely to
continue even as melting Arctic sea ice makes the far north more
But increasingly warm temperatures also could make the
Northwest Passage north of Canada an economically viable
shipping route. Now, it is passable only at the end of most
summers. It could also open up a route directly over the North
Pole by mid-century, according to research published in the
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Plus.
The Northern Sea Route, which mostly hugs Russia's northern
coastline and is now a primary Arctic shipping route, would
continue to be viable, according to research by Laurence Smith,
a geography professor at the University of California-Los
The transit across the Arctic would remain highly seasonal,
limited to parts of September when the ice has shrunk and
thinned to its lowest level.
Last September, the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center
reported Arctic sea ice melted to its lowest recorded level. The
Arctic is one of the fastest-warming places on Earth because of
the so-called albeido effect, where sun-reflecting light-colored
ice is frequently replaced by sun-absorbing dark-colored water.
The more ice melts, the warmer things get.
Both the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage would
be accessible to ordinary ships in addition to light
ice-breakers by 2050, Smith said in a telephone interview.
"Last year, nearly 50 ships went through the Northern Sea
Route, but this work shows that there will be other technically
feasible options which will be available," he said.
The across-the-pole route, which had never before been
considered, would be available only to light ice-breakers
capable of plowing through ice 3.9 feet (1.2 metres) thick.
Melting ice could make these Arctic routes more viable,
For example, right now it makes no sense for any ship
traveling between eastern North America and Asia to go via the
Northwest Passage. The islands in the Canadian archipelago slow
navigation, and the ice lingers there in a way that it doesn't
along the Northern Sea Route. Even though the Northern Sea Route
is a greater distance, it takes less time.
However, by 2050, using projections of global warming and
Arctic ice loss, Smith said the Northwest Passage will be
sufficiently navigable to make the trip from the North American
east coast to the Bering Strait in 15 days, compared to 23 days
for the Northern Sea Route, about a 30 percent time savings.
This is never likely to be a year-round proposition, since
winter sea ice will always recur, Smith said. And as Arctic
shipping lanes open up, land transportation in the far north is
expected to suffer, as winter ice roads deteriorate. These ice
roads are the only economically viable way to do heavy
construction and remove ore in the far north, he said.
"The distances are vast, the landscape is boggy and wet and
covered with lakes," Smith said. "We've done modeling of this as
well and what you see is a shutdown of human access on land and
an increase of human access in the ocean."
(Reporting by Deborah Zabarenko; Editing by Marilyn W.