New Access and New Vulnerabilities

from Lloyd’s Report 2012: Arctic Opening – Opportunity and Risk in the High North


Over the next few decades the trend towards more ice-free areas of the Arctic Ocean, and longer ice-free periods, is expected to continue. This will improve sea-borne access to coastal areas that, for parts of the year, are currently either inaccessible or accessible only by heavy icebreakers, which are expensive to build, maintain and charter. The opening of the Arctic will reduce shipping costs where icebreakers are no longer needed, and extend exploration and drilling seasons for offshore oil and gas.

The changes will be most noticeable in areas that are currently most ice-prone, off the coasts of Greenland, Canada and Alaska and particularly along Russia’s northern coastline. Areas where sea ice is already less common – such as off the coast of northern Norway – will see a less radical shift.

However, climate change will reduce the accessibility of many inland areas. All across the Arctic, changes in climate will create new vulnerabilities for infrastructure and present new design challenges.

Existing infrastructure – buildings, bridges, roads, railways and pipelines – built on permafrost will become more expensive to maintain as the permafrost layer across northern Alaska, Canada and Russia become unstable. A shortening season for winter roads (temporary roads carved out of snow or ice) is already creating access challenges for communities and mine sites across northern Canada1 . Winter road seasons for travel across northern Alaskan tundra have declined from over 200 days in the 1970s to around 100 days in the early 2000s2 . People and some goods can be flown in by air, albeit at considerable expense, but heavy machinery cannot.

Given conditions of rapid change in the physical environment, Arctic infrastructure will need to adapt to a much wider range of potential environmental conditions over the course of a multi-decade life3 . This means that all across the north, future infrastructure will have to conform to different technical specifications, and may be more expensive to build.

A good example of the double-edged consequences of climate change on access is the (sub- Arctic) port of Churchill in northern Manitoba, one end of the long promised ‘Arctic Bridge’ from northern Canada to Murmansk in northern Russia. While maritime access to Churchill has increased in recent years, creating the possibility of expanding sea-borne grain exports, the periodic thawing of permafrost on which the single-track railway line to Churchill is built can cause the track to buckle. This increases the risk of derailments, slows traffic and sometimes halts it altogether. Millions of dollars have been spent on repairing the line, but the costs of upgrading it permanently would be much greater.

There are challenges for coastal areas too. The number of open-water days in the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska and northern Canada (see Figure 5) correlates with increasing coastal erosion. The reduction in sea ice increases the distance over which waves gather strength – their ‘fetch’ – and increases the exposure of the coast. In low-lying areas of the Arctic – as elsewhere – any rise in sea level puts coastal infrastructure at risk.

Finally, on land, climate change may increase the frequency of extreme weather such as high precipitation or hotter than average Arctic summers, raising the risk of events such as flooding or forest fires4 . At sea, many expect warming to make Arctic storms more severe, posing a different set of challenges for Arctic shipping and additional risks for coastal infrastructure, including the increased risk of storm surge (see Figure 6)5 .

Figure 5: Increase in average number of ice-free days in the Beaufort Sea compared to rates of coastal erosion Image  

Figure 6: Arctic storm tracks (xii)



(xii) S. Hakkinen, A. Proshutinsky, and I. Ashik, “Sea ice drift in the Arctic since the 1950s”, Geophys. Res. Lett., 35, 2008.


  •  1. Northern Assets: Transportation Infrastructure in Remote Communities Conference Board of Canada Marta Bristow Vijay Gill 2011
  •  2. Evidence and implications of recent climate change in northern Alaska and other Arctic regions Climate Change 72 pp. 251–298 See L.D. Hinzman et al 2005
  •  3. Global Warring: How Environmental Economic and Political Crises will Redraw the World Map pp. 1–75 Cleo Paskal London 2010
  •  4. Carbon loss from an unprecedented arctic tundra wildfire M.C. Mack M.S. Bret-Harte T.K.N. Hollingsworth R.R. Jandt E.A.G. Schuur G.R. Shaver D. L. Verbyla 2011
  •  5. Sea drift in the Arctic since the 1950s Vol. 35 Sirpa Hakkinen Andrey Proshutinsky Igor Ashik 2011 Arctic Report Card NOAA Geophysical Research Letters

Charles Emmerson, Glada Lahn, 2012, New Access and New Vulnerabilities, Lloyd’s.© 

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