Northern Sea Route could be open six months a year by century end

The Northern Sea Route through Arctic waters across Russia could be open to shipping for more than six months a year by the end of the 21st century. That’s according to a team from Russia and Germany who modelled ice cover day by day.

"The Northern Sea Route cuts the distance from northern Europe to northeast Asia and northwest North America by up to 50%, compared to the southern routes through Suez or the Panama Canal," said Vyacheslav Khon from the Russian Academy of Sciences and Kiel University in Germany. "The on-going Arctic sea-ice decline means the route could become a potential alternative for intercontinental navigation between Atlantic and Pacific regions in forthcoming decades."

End-to-end navigation of the Northern Sea Route has only become possible over the last two decades; from 1980–1989 it required icebreaker support.

Khon and colleagues projected daily sea-ice concentrations using 25 climate models from the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5 (CMIP5) under the RCP4.5 and RCP8.5 scenarios. If a grid cell had a sea-ice concentration of less than 15%, the team considered it to be open water and so navigable by light ice-class ships. They designated the Northern Sea Route as navigable on a particular day when the length of open water exceeded 80–90% of the whole length of the route.

"The opening of the Northern Sea Route may significantly reduce expenses for icebreaker escort and ice reinforcement for cargo ships, shorten shipping time, diminish risks and increase reliability of the transit traffic," said Khon. "This may raise a commercial attraction of the Northern Sea Route compared to the southern marine routes – the Suez or Panama canals."

Sea ice may disappear from the Arctic during the summer as early as the first half of this century, according to Khon, although the date is dependent on internal and multi-decadal variability. The reduced ice cover may cause problems for shipping by enabling larger waves to build up. The Arctic could also see stronger winds and more coastal erosion, again both potentially problematic for ships.

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