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Sailing over the North Pole possible by 2050 due to melting polar ice, says study

Scientists from the University of California at Los Angeles say that sailing over the North Pole may be possible by 2050 due to melting polar ice, according to a news release from UCLA. Lead researcher Laurence C. Smith, a professor of geography at UCLA, said that the development is great from an economic development point of view and concerning in terms of safety, both for the environment and the ships sailing over the North Pole.

The study, which is based on independent climate forecasts for the years 2040 to 2059, represents the first thorough analysis of trans-Arctic shipping potential as global temperatures continue to rise and polar ice continues to melt.

The scientists discovered that by 2050 ordinary ships will be able to sail over the North Pole without icebreakers. An icebreaker is a ship that is designed for breaking a channel through the ice. Co-author Scott R. Stephenson, a Ph.D. candidate in the UCLA Department of Geography, noted that navigating the Arctic waters “unescorted” is “inconceivable” at the present time.

The scientists predict that polar icebreakers will be able to navigate between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans by sailing over the North Pole. This is an “entirely unexpected possibility,” according to Smith.

The scientists pointed out that the route directly over the North Pole is 20 percent shorter than today’s most-traveled Arctic shipping lane, the Northern Sea Route. For ships sailing between Rotterdam in the Netherlands and Yokohama, Japan, the Northern Sea Route is already about 40 percent shorter than the traditional route through the Suez Canal.

The scientists predict that even the dangerous Northwest Passage will become more usable for Polar Class 6 vessels and maybe even ships with unreinforced hulls. By 2050, enough sea ice will melt in September to make the Northwest Passage accessible every other year, on average (currently, this route is accessible only one out of seven years, on average). However, Smith noted that sailing over the North Pole will “never be a year-round operation.”

For hundreds of years, explorers have been fascinated by the idea of traveling between the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans through the Bering Strait. Until recently, however, sea ice has prevented access to the shorter route between Asia and North America or Europe. Now, the ice has started to melt in late summer to such an extent that even normal seagoing ships, with icebreaker escorts, have been able to traverse the Northern Sea Route. In summer 2012, a total of 46 ships successfully traveled the Northern Sea Route.

Smith and Stephenson made their predictions by examining these shipping routes and the degree of ice melt that has opened them up for ordinary seagoing vessels.  They then looked at the results from seven forecasts for the sea ice cover in the Arctic and averaged predictions for the extent of the Arctic ice sheet in September for every year between 2040 and 2059.

The researchers considered two scenarios for climate change: One that assumed a 25 percent increase in global carbon emissions and one that assumed a 35 percent increase in global carbon emissions. They discovered that changes in accessibility were significant under both scenarios.

According to the scientists, 2050 falls well within the long lead times of commercial and governmental planning efforts. In fact, their predictions have serious implications for port construction as well as the establishment of jurisdiction of shipping lanes.

The scientists stressed the need for comprehensive international regulations that provide adequate environmental protections, vessel safety standards and search-and-rescue capability.

“The Arctic is a fragile and dangerous place,” Smith said.

The study’s findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Plus.