Climate change: It’s not all bad
This winter, the Arctic region experienced a massive heat wave that broke records and stunned scientists throughout the world. In fact, recent temperatures taken from North-East Greenland were the warmest on record for the month of February, averaging 27 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius) above normal. Such high temperatures are causing sea ice to thin out, if not disappear altogether. Thinner and older ice in the Arctic Ocean means large-scale environmental and ecological change. For Arctic animal species, taking sea ice out of the ecosystem is quite literally like taking trees out of a rainforest.
What is sea ice? And why is it important?
Sea ice is a physical structure, much like trees, from which animals have evolved for millennia to be able to use to their advantage. Everything, from the algae that grows on the bottom of the ice and serves as the start of the Arctic food chain to the polar bear, all use sea ice in unique ways to survive. Therefore, as sea ice disappears, so will the many animals that call it home.
How is climate change in the Arctic affecting transportation?
Such changes in sea ice levels also present smaller obstacles to those who want to use the Arctic for transportation. The Northern Sea Route (NSR), which runs along Russia’s Arctic coast, provides a significantly shorter distance between East Asia and Europe and is being used more and more during the Arctic’s increasingly warmer summers. In 2017, three separate records were broken for use of the NSR: Total tonnage shipped, the speed at which passage through NSR was completed, and time of year in which it was completed.
According to the Russian Federal Agency for Maritime and River Transport, 2017 saw a significant increase in the use of portions of the Northern Sea Route by shipping companies, up 35 percent from 2016 with 9.74 million tons of goods shipped, making 2017 the highest on record. Not only did the Northern Sea Route see its heaviest use per ton of goods in 2017, but also its fastest passage.
Northern Sea Route: Breaking records
Last September, the “Baltic Lady,” owned by Heino Winter, sailed from the Bering Strait to Nova Zemlaya in only 5.6 days on its way from China to Germany. Such speed was attributed to the ship’s high ice classification, or the additional strengthening added to the ship’s structure to better assist it in the ice breaking process. Furthermore, the “Edward Toll”, a polar classed LNG tanker, passed through the Bering Strait on its way to the port of Sabetta on December 25th, marking its passage as the latest through the NSR on record. These three records show that more cargo is being shipped on the NSR for two reasons – climate change is making the route more accessible by thinning and breaking up sea ice, and more companies are investing in ice classed ships, allowing larger cargoes to be shipped along the route more frequently.
While those three records are important, they by no means mark any sort of sizeable shift to using the NSR as a global trade route. However, it is understood that if climate change continues to warm the Arctic, many more ships could use it in the near future.
In a recent state of the nation speech in Moscow, Vladimir Putin declared that “The Northern Sea Route will be the key to the development of the Russian Arctic and the regions of the far east. By 2025, its traffic will increase tenfold, to 80 million tons.” While this is an ambitious statement, Russia is investing in both more ships and Arctic infrastructure to make it a reality. While the NSR has a long way to go to become a major international shipping route, recent record-breaking passages are showing the rest of the world that in the near future the NSR could provide a cheaper, faster alternative for their global shipping needs.