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As Sea Ice Fades, The Arctic Becomes A Nautical Highway

The timing couldn’t have been better: just a week or so after scientists announced the greatest meltback of Arctic sea ice on record, three adventurers declared they’d slipped through the McClure Strait in Canada’s Arctic Archipelago, thus achieving the first-ever sailboat trek through the northernmost part of the fabled Northwest Passage.

Together, the two events made it abundantly clear that the Arctic is warming dramatically. That in turn could pose great risks to Arctic wildlife, accelerate warming elsewhere on the planet, trigger the release of greenhouse gases frozen in the permafrost and sea floor, and disrupt weather patterns around the world.

Even as the single-masted Belzebub II completed its epic journey, however, another ship was quietly making its own Arctic crossing even further north, foreshadowing yet another looming threat posed by melting ice: the rapid industrialization of the Arctic.

The Chinese icebreaker Xuelong, or Snow Dragon.
Credit: antarctica.gov.au

The Chinese icebreaker Xuelong, or Snow Dragon, had already traversed the Northeast Passage, along the coast of Siberia; now it was headed back to China straight through the middle of the Arctic Ocean. It was taking a shortcut more or less right over the North Pole — and having virtually no trouble doing so.

If ships can reliably navigate this so-called Central Arctic Shipping Route, it could shave up to 8,000 miles off the journey from Shanghai to Europe, slashing transport costs. And if the ice continues to melt, that’s exactly what’s likely to happen.

Even as recently as a decade ago, such a passage would have been unthinkable. You could get to the North Pole on a nuclear-powered icebreaker, but a conventional icebreaker like the Xuelong could never smash its way through ice that could be 10 feet thick or more.

The Arctic has been steadily warming, however, largely due to heat-trapping greenhouse gases — a warming that’s faster there than in other parts of the world because open ocean absorbs solar energy, leading to progressively thinner and less widespread ice at the end of the summer.

But the fact that ice is getting thinner is only part of the story, according to David Barber, a sea-ice researcher at the University of Manitoba.

Back in 2010, Barber said in a telephone interview, “we were out on the Beaufort Sea, in ice that the satellites were telling us should be thick, multi-year ice” — that is, solid ice that has added more and more layers during the winter over many seasons. It was thick, all right, but it was also riddled with holes — “like Swiss cheese,” he said at the time. The ice was so rotten that his research icebreaker could move through regions that should have stopped it in its tracks.

The Belzebub II. 
Credit: Belzebub2.com

That same year, Barber spent some time on a Chinese icebreaker as well, when the ship headed due north, the story was the same: the ship, which should have ground to a halt hundreds of miles from the North Pole, made it nearly all the way. “They only stopped because they were afraid they’d use up too much fuel,” he said.

This year, the Xuelong is having an even easier time of it; in theory, merchant vessels could be following the path it’s cutting through the remaining ice. Over the next several years, the theory is likely to become reality, as the ice gets even weaker.

“When I began my career in the early 1980’s,” Barber said, “about 80 percent of the ice was multi-year; now it’s down around 12 percent. It’s an endangered species.”  

The Northwest Passage has been navigable off and on for several years already; the Northeast Passage, meanwhile, has been mostly navigable, since prevailing winds tend to blow ice away from Siberia and toward the Canadian Arctic.

The seasonal opening of these coastal waters has already whetted the appetites of mineral-exploration and energy companies who want to exploit the region’s enormous mineral and energy resources; now it’s the turn of shippers trying to save money.

“There’s tremendous pressure from industry,” Barber said, “but the whole situation is volatile because large, dangerous icebergs are now floating freely in places where they once would have been frozen solid.” Moreover, he said, “it’s happening faster than scientists can figure out what’s going on.”

In its latest major report, the IPCC projected that the Arctic Ocean would be largely ice-free by somewhere between 2050 and 2100.

Now some scientists think it could happen within the next 15-30 years, and as the ice recedes and ships, drilling rigs and mining operations begin to move into the region with the threat of oil spills and other forms of pollution, the largely pristine North polar environment is virtually certain to suffer.