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Natural Conditions of the Arctic Significant for Shipping

(by Karl Magnus Eger)


The whole Arctic Ocean covers about 14 million square kilometres. Climate models have been predicting warming for some time and indicated that effects of change would be the most dramatic in the Arctic. Signs validating these forecasts are being seen. Arctic average temperatures have risen considerably in the last few decades. Northern polar temperatures are increasing twice the rate of the global mean1 . Ice concentrations have shown a steady decline. Glaciers are retreating, shore erosion is becoming more pronounced in some areas and rising permafrost temperatures have already had a significant effect on essential infrastructure. An acceleration of these climate trends is predicted during this century, which will have a significant social and economic effect on the Arctic2 .

Some of the changes associated with Arctic warming and a decreased sea ice presence may have an impact on Arctic marine traffic. For instance, climate change will pose a serious threat to the permafrost3  of the Northern Hemisphere. Melting the once permanently frozen solid could have a remarkable effect altering ecosystems and damaging infrastructure across Canada, Alaska, and Russia. Simulations, performed by the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA), indicates that over in excess of 50% of permafrost could thaw by 2050 and as much as 90% by 21004 . The impact on the transportation of goods to the Canadian Arctic by winter roads will not likely be significantly impacted by 2020. However, by 2050 the winter road season will be shorter and both the traffic volume and weight that these roads will be able to sustain will decrease.

The condition of land transportation routes in Russia is also affected by thawing of the permafrost. In the early 1990s, 10 to 16% of the sub grade in the permafrost areas of the Baikal Amur railroad line was deformed because of permafrost thawing, this increased to 46% in 1998. The majority of runways in Norilsk, Yakutsk, Magadan, and other cities may be closed for shorter or longer periods due to lack of maintenance4 . The complexity and cost of building permanent overland roads or rail beds will increase as will the construction costs associated with establishing new Arctic harbour infrastructure. The result of less ice and costlier ground transportation options will likely result in increased marine transportation to support the extraction of gas, oil and minerals from the Arctic region.

Figure 4.1: Sea Ice Extent 1979 – 2008


Source: Image NASA, 2008

Surveys, performed by the ACIA programme, estimate an annual decline in the Arctic ice of 5-10% and reduction in thickness at 10-15% over the last decades. Measurements performed with submarine sonar in the central Arctic Ocean showed a reduction in ice thickness of 40% in this area. These trends indicate longer periods of less and thinner ice cover in the Arctic Ocean and possibilities of increased shipping. Climate models show an acceleration of this trend, with periods of extensive melting higher during spring and autumn. Significant retreat of sea ice during the summer will possibly open up new sailing channels and extend the sailing season. Sailing season is often defined as the number of days in the year when it is possible to sail, i.e. days of less than 50% ice concentration5 .

Although the ACIA projections indicates an increasing length of the navigation season for the NSR5 , it is more uncertainty when it comes to predicting future ice conditions on the NWP based solely on the output of climate models6 . As Arctic warming continues, it is likely that much of first year ice in the Canadian Archipelago will break up much earlier than is currently the case. However, this will likely allow old hazardous ice from the permanent ice pack to enter the NWP in greater quantities posing a threat to shipping at least to the end of the century.


  •  1. WWF (2008),
  •  2. IPCC (2007), Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change, Working Group 1: The physical Science Basis of Climate Change, AR4 Report 2007.
  •  3. In geology, permafrost or permafrost soil is soil at or below the freezing point of water (0 °C for two or more years. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Permafrost
  •  4. ACIA (2005), Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2005
  •  5. ACIA, Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, Impacts of a Warming Arctic, Cambridge University Press 2004.
  •  6. CASA (2007), Canadian Arctic Shipping Assessment, By The Mainport Group Ltd. for Transport Canada, June 2007

Karl Magnus Eger, 2010, Natural Conditions of the Arctic Significant for Shipping, CHNL.©