Diminishing Arctic ice opens trade routes, commercial possibilities
Thursday, March 07, 2019
When it comes to predicting the Arctic’s future, we are all "skating on thin ice." Recent data taken from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s annual Arctic Report Card shows that, by 2018, the Arctic Ocean lost 95 percent of its "oldest ice." This melting produces warmer temperatures because thick ice coverage keeps ocean water from absorbing the sun’s heat.
While ice melts, dollar (and ruble) signs accrue, and new ice-free navigable waters open up trade routes, extend commercial fishing possibilities, and make global energy markets more competitive — to the dismay of clean energy advocates everywhere.
There are a few Arctic routes to consider. The Northwest Passage runs from Greenland’s Baffin Bay to the Bering Strait along Canada’s and Alaska’s coasts. The Central Arctic Route connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, spanning from Iceland through the Arctic Circle over the North Pole to the Bering Strait. This route still faces ice obstacles, but it could be navigable by midcentury.
One route getting much publicity these days is The Northern Sea Route: a "national waterway of the Russian Federation that crosses seven time zones as it wends its way along Russia’s coastline."
This route traverses the Arctic Ocean all the way to East Asia/Asia-Pacific and is considered part of Russia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). EEZs are regulated by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and reach 200 nautical miles from a nation’s coastline for the exclusive exploration of marine resources, including energy from wind and water sources.
This route cuts travel time by half or one-third and has proven especially convenient for Russian energy companies. Russia is the world’s largest natural gas exporter, and so far, liquified natural gas (LNG), oil, and coal are transported along the route.
A Russian LNG tanker first navigated Arctic Ocean waters on the Northern Sea Route in December 2017. After that much lauded day of Arctic travel, which Russian President Vladimir Putin was present to commemorate, it was speculated that by 2019, LNG would be hauling 16.5 tons of its product to Europe and East Asia via the Northern Sea Route.
Now, there are even plans to open the route year-round. Russian gas company, Novatek, has announced plans to use 100-megawatt-hour nuclear icebreakers to do this by 2025.
Nuclear icebreakers are what make all this possible. A few years ago, Russia unveiled the Arktika, a 567-foot, 33,500-ton ship with one command: break ice. (To put this size in perspective, the U.S. Coast Guard operates three non-nuclear icebreakers, with 25 percent of the Arktika’s power.) Then, Russia gave the world the Sibir, which is the same size as the Arktika, with the Ural following behind.
Russia also plans a "a ship of futuristic, almost fantastical, proportions" called The Leader, which it claims will keep trade route open year round by breaking ice as far as 15 feet deep, according to The Independent. This $1.6 billion ship has a girth capturing everyone’s attention: at 673 feet and 71,000 tons, it is by far the largest nuclear icebreaker yet.
While new trade routes receive plenty of enthusiasm, criticisms of Arctic nuclear-powered icebreakers abound. The materials used, and waste generated in operation of these huge ships should be noted.
Nuclear power produces more greenhouse gas emissions per kilowatt hour than other renewables, despite lacking fossil fuel dependency to operate. Icebreakers carry nuclear reactors that pose massive problems in the event of an accident. Finally, they risk ocean spills and "require extensive maintenance and costly repairs and modernization to remain operational."
Are these impacts justified by reduced travel time across the Arctic Ocean?
Speaking of impact, commercial fishing in the central Arctic Ocean is expected by mid-century, but 10 countries have signed a legally binding document that prevents unregulated fishing there. American and Japanese scientists recently met at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks to discuss central Arctic commercial fishing in this area around the North Pole, which is water not beholden to any national jurisdiction.
Candace Nachman from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries office summarizes some questions needing answers: "What fish species are there? What fish species could move there as (there’s) change in ice cover and ocean temperatures? And then how are the ecosystem linkages really going to play into any fisheries that may or may not occur in the region?"
To prevent marine life die-off from ocean pollution, the International Maritime Organization recently announced a bunker fuel ban, which will reduce emissions from ships that produced 1 billion tons of greenhouse gases between 2007-2012. While the U.S. has agreed to the ban, in a rather telling move, two prominent nations in Arctic route expansion, Canada and Russia, have not signed on.
As scientists continue to study the still mysterious region, key nations and industries will be keeping their eyes set on the rapidly changing Arctic landscape and all the riches that lie within.
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