Directorate-General for Research & Innovation logo Horizon: the EU Research & Innovation magazine | European Commission logo
Receive our editor’s picks

As the ice melts, the Arctic opens up to cargo ships and energy firms

Global warming could mean cargo ships will be crossing the Arctic to access the Pacific Ocean, avoiding the Panama Canal. © Shutterstock/ Aleksey Stemmer
Global warming could mean cargo ships will be crossing the Arctic to access the Pacific Ocean, avoiding the Panama Canal. © Shutterstock/ Aleksey Stemmer

The Nordic Orion became the first cargo ship to take the treacherous Northwest Passage from the Pacific Ocean to Europe last year, and now its Danish operators are planning more trips across the Arctic as the sea ice melts.

In September 2013, the ship carried 73 500 tons of coal from Vancouver, in Canada, to Finland by cutting directly across the Arctic, shaving about four days off a trip which would normally take it through the Panama Canal and across the Atlantic.

The Nordic Orion is likely to be the first of many ships to use the route as global warming reduces the sea ice.

It is a trend that has caused concern among environmental groups, who are worried about the impact of pollution on the near-pristine Arctic environment. The noise of ship engines cutting through the Arctic Ocean will also irritate the sensitive hearing of sea mammals such as whales.

Researchers are now trying to evaluate the environmental impact that the increasing access will have on the Arctic’s vulnerable ecosystems, so that they can guide policymakers as they seek to regulate the region.

It’s not only the prospect of more ships making the Northwest Passage, but in recent years researchers have also seen an increase in traffic through the Northern Sea Route, which runs between Asia and Europe through Siberian Arctic waters.

‘You may still have key passages or pivotal points where you have large ice masses or blockages, so you may still need icebreakers to get through, though everything else may be open,’ said Dr Michael Karcher, the assistant coordinator of the EU-funded ACCESS project, which is monitoring the region.

‘Our aim is to provide the science, the knowledge that may help in making political decisions.’

Dr Michael Karcher, assistant coordinator of the EU-funded ACCESS project

Vast deposits

The thinning ice also means better access to vast oil and gas deposits believed to be buried under the seabed. The Arctic is estimated to have about a third of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 13 % of its undiscovered oil, and energy firms have already started drilling into the ice.

The long-term trend is for the sea ice to continue melting due to global warming, meaning the scramble to access these resources will only intensify. However, conditions in the Arctic can vary widely over the next few decades, and that makes it tricky for policymakers to regulate. 

That’s why the ACCESS project is focusing on the impact of climate change on oil and gas extraction, transportation and sea life over the next 30 years.

Maritime jurisdiction and boundaries in the Arctic region. Image courtesy of the International Boundaries Research Unit, Durham University, UKMaritime jurisdiction and boundaries in the Arctic region. © International Boundaries Research Unit, Durham University, UK

‘We have long-term trends like reduced ice thickness, increased warming and reduced ice extent, but at the same time this overlaps with a very strong natural variability, making it very difficult to make predictions over the next few decades,’ said Dr Karcher.

Increased pollution caused by shipping traffic and oil and gas production has significant implications for the Arctic atmosphere, and could have an impact on climate change itself. To find out what this impact might be, the project is collecting data and measuring concentrations of hydrocarbons and chemical and particle pollution in the region. 

The melting ice is also likely to mean more fish farming in the Arctic as higher temperatures provide suitable conditions for expansion, the project said, while there could also be a surge in the number of tourists who want to experience the Arctic before any of its unique characteristics disappear.

However, one of the biggest problems is that of governance, as it is still unclear which countries have jurisdiction over much of the Arctic. That makes it difficult to regulate the region coherently.

ACCESS researchers have been developing proposals for ways to deal with potential disagreements that may happen over jurisdiction or access to resources. For example, various options over marine transport will be put to the Arctic Council and the International Maritime Organization.

By the time it finishes in 2015, the project will pull together its findings into recommendations for policymakers. ‘Our aim is to provide the science, the knowledge that may help in making political decisions,’ Dr Karcher said.

More info