While a warming climate could spell disaster for countless snow-loving species, an ice-free Arctic artery could also offer essential trade alternatives to the Russian-controlled Northern Sea Route, according to a new study.
Climate models indicate that parts of the Arctic Ocean that were once covered in ice all year round are now warming so rapidly that they will likely be ice-free for months within two decades, according to the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
This dramatic transformation will lead to the endangerment of species that thrive in sub-zero temperatures, the researchers acknowledged.
Yet these conditions will also increase the navigability of the Arctic to such an extent that by 2065, new trade routes could populate international waters – not only reducing the carbon footprint of the shipping industry, but releasing also Russia’s control over trade in the Arctic, according to the study.
“There is no scenario in which melting ice in the Arctic is good news,” wrote lead author Amanda Lynch, professor of earth, environmental and planetary sciences at the Brown University.
“But the sad reality is that the ice is already receding, these roads are opening up, and we need to start thinking critically about the legal, environmental and geopolitical implications,” Lynch added.
Lynch and his colleagues worked to model four sailing scenarios based on different potential outcomes of global efforts to thwart climate change in the coming years, according to the study.
Their projections determined that unless world leaders limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) over the next 43 years, climate change is likely to open new shipping routes across international waters. by the middle of the century.
Such changes could have significant implications for global trade and global politics, according to co-author Charles Norchi, director of the Center for Oceans and Coastal Law at the University of Maine School of Law and a visiting fellow at Brown.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, signed in 1982, increased the authority of Arctic coastal states over major shipping routes, Norchi said in a statement.
Through a specific clause in the convention – called Article 234 – these countries gained the ability to regulate sea traffic on the route, as long as the region remains covered in ice for most of the year, according to Norchi. The provision was meant to ensure “the prevention, reduction and control of marine pollution from ships”, he explained, citing the article.
Yet Norchi testified that for decades Russia has used Section 234 for its own economic and geopolitical interests. Russian law requires all ships using the Northern Sea Route to be piloted by Russians, and they must also notify their plans in advance and pay tolls, he said.
Faced with such heavy regulation, major shipping companies often choose to bypass the route and instead use the much longer – but cheaper and easier – trade routes through the Suez and Panama Canals, according to Norchi. .
If the ice near Russia’s northern coast continues to melt, so will the country’s grip on Arctic shipping, Norchi said. While Moscow will continue to invoke Article 234, it will face opposition from the international community, he added.
“Not only that, but with the ice melting, shipping will leave Russian territorial waters and head towards international waters,” Norchi said. “If that happens, there’s not much Russia can do, because the outcome depends on climate change and shipping economics.”
Since arctic routes are around 30-50% shorter than trips through the Suez and Panama Canals, reducing travel time by around 14-20 days, shipping companies could reduce their gas emissions greenhouse by about 24%, according to Lynch.
These new arteries could also provide alternatives if a ship blocks an important shipping route for an extended period, Lynch added, referring to an incident in March 2021 when a ship was stuck in the Suez Canal for six days.
“The diversification of trade routes – especially given new routes that cannot be blocked, as they are not canals – gives the global maritime infrastructure much more resilience,” Lynch said.