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An iceberg in or just outside the Ilulissat fjord, which likely calved from Jakobshavn Isbrae, the fastest glacier in western Greenland, in May 2012. Polar ice sheets are now melting three times faster than in the 1990s. (AP)

Study Finds Climate Change To Open Arctic Sea Routes By 2050

Mar 5, 2013

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By midcentury, trans-Arctic passages will no longer be solely for submarines, a new study says. A graphic excerpted from the original PNAS study.

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Climate change will make commercial shipping possible from North America to Russia or Asia over the North Pole by the middle of the century, a new study says.

Two researchers at the University of California ran seven different climate models simulating two classes of vessels to see if they could make a relatively ice-free passage through the Arctic Ocean. In each case, the sea routes are sufficiently clear after 2049, they say.

The study, published Monday in the journal PNAS by Laurence C. Smith and Scott R. Stephenson, found that the sea ice will become thin enough that a "corridor directly over the north pole" will open up. "The shortest great circle route thus becomes feasible, for ships with moderate ice-breaking capability."

(A great circle route is the shortest distance between two points on the surface of a sphere, such as the Earth.)

Smith and Stephenson conclude that the opening of the new routes "heightens the urgency for a mandatory International Maritime Organization regulatory framework to ensure adequate environmental protections, vessel safety standards, and search-and-rescue capability."

According to The Guardian:

"The northern sea route has been shown to save a medium-sized bulk carrier 18 days and 580 tons of bunker fuel on a journey between northern Norway and China. Shipowners have said it can save them EUR180,000-EUR300,000 ($235,000-$390,000) on each voyage. A direct route over the pole could save up to 40 percent more fuel and time."

Arctic sea ice has shrunk to its smallest extent on record in recent years, which has already opened up a seasonal northern route over Canada. Last year, a solo sailor in a 27-foot fiberglass sailboat was one of 18 private yachts to make the voyage.

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