Study: Climate change to make Arctic shipping easier, but road transport harder

A recent study published in the academic journal Nature Climate Change by UCLA geography doctoral student Scott Stephenson is the first to quantify the effect of climate change on transportation systems in the Arctic. We already know that melting ice is causing the oceans to open up and the ground to defrost, leading to greater opportunities for shipping and  decreased opportunities for ice roads. However, Scott’s study estimates the amount of land that will no longer be able to support ice roads and the amount of sea that will be open to ships.

What’s also really neat about this project, which I saw Scott working on while I was an undergraduate at UCLA, is that it uses GIS and remote sensing technology to quantify and analyze the research subject at hand. Climate and sea ice models from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) are combined with information regarding hydrography, topography, land cover, transportation infrastructure, and human settlements, making it highly comprehensive. The research is also able to reveal the effect of climate change on transportation in the circumpolar region at large rather than in just one country or specific area.

Scott’s study predicts that the Northern Sea Route, Arctic Bridge (the route connecting Murmansk and Churchill), and North Pole routes will all be open to navigation in the summertime by mid-century. The Northwest Passage will be 30% more accessible, making a whole 82% of it open to navigation. That means that in the long term, the U.S. and Canada need to resolve their disagreement over sovereignty in those straits. Yet while the waters at the top of the world will be more navigable, the land will not: all eight of the Arctic states will lose between 11% and 82% of inland accessibility north of 40 degrees. Warmer weather and more snow (caused by the greater amount of precipitation and moisture in the air that warmer temperatures bring) will make ice road construction difficult, if not impossible. The lighter yellow color in the images below corresponds to decreased travel time, while black represents no accessibility at all. On the left, we see that much of the area around the North Pole is inaccessible during the current time period (2000-2014). However, by 2045-2059, most of that area opens up, whereas certain other locations farther south take a longer time to traverse.

November Travel Time to Nearest Settlement. R: 2000-2014. L: 2045-2059.

In Canada, which has 5,400 kilometers of ice roads, winter road access will decline by 13%. As an example, right now, it takes an estimated 3.8 days to travel from Yellowknife, NWT to Bathurst Inlet, Nunavut. By 2050, however, travel time could increase 77 percent to 6.5 days. Decreased road access is a daunting problem for the territories up north wishing to cash in on their natural resources. Quebec is planning to invest heavily in its mining industry with its ambitious Plan Nord, but in certain locations, air transport may be the only way to get the good stuff out – making the cost of doing business prohibitive. Moreover, for the people living in remote locations in the North, a lack of roads will necessitate goods and cargo to be delivered by air, raising the cost of living in an already expensive region. An all-weather road would help in places like Northern Canada, but having piles of snow on the asphalt would make it much more expensive to maintain. So while the economic future of the Arctic Ocean looks promising, that of the melting, increasingly snowbound land of the North is less certain.

The full article is available online but requires a subscription.

News Links

“Landlocked: Melting Arctic Means Fewer Ice Roads,” Alaska Dispatch

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