WASHINGTON — In a twist to the debate over global warming, melting Arctic sea ice is making it easier to transport the fossil fuels that produce the planet-warming gases, which appear to be causing it to thaw in the first place.
As a result, a record number of tankers have gained access to an emerging shipping route, creating a potential industrial boon in the remote Arctic.
The increasingly ice-free route runs from Europe to Asian markets through the Bering Strait, which divides Alaska and Russia. It can be 40 percent shorter than the southern alternative of shipping through the Suez Canal.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has vowed to turn it into one of the world’s “key trade routes of international significance in scale,” as Russia moves to export Arctic oil and gas to China and other hungry economies in the Far East.
The Russian leader predicted in 2011 that the route could rival the Suez Canal eventually.
Arctic sea ice melted to a record low in September, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, when ice covered just 24 percent of the Arctic Ocean, compared with at least twice that amount three decades ago.
Norway’s oil minister, Ola Borten Moe, said that if the melting trend continued, he foresaw a time when a range of cargo broader than the current petroleum products, iron ore and coal would be transported through the Arctic waters along the route.
“That will not only be important for energy production, but also for all kinds of transportation of goods,” he said recently at the Brookings Institution, a research center in Washington. “This could change the dynamics between Europe and Asia.”
Just four vessels completed the northern sea route from Europe to Asia in 2010. But the traffic has jumped tenfold since – at least 46 vessels sailed the route this season, according to the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development – and it’s expected to increase with continued Arctic development.
A milestone came earlier in December, when the Russian energy giant, Gazprom, announced that it had completed the world’s first liquefied natural-gas cargo delivery across the Arctic through the northern sea route.
Sea ice melt also is helping to open up a Northwest Passage route along the Canadian and Alaskan Arctic coasts. But that has bigger challenges than the northern sea route that transits the European Arctic. The northern sea route has less ice and superior depth, the Alaska Legislature noted in a 2012 report.
“Therefore, it is anticipated that will be the preferred Arctic sea lane,” the report concluded.
The northern sea route, however, raises issues for Alaska because of increased ship traffic in the Bering Strait, where vessels turn south from Russia toward Asia.
An increasing number of cruise ships and other vessels also ply the Alaskan Arctic waters. The U.S. Coast Guard said that at one point in August, 95 ships were operating in the Arctic waters off Alaska. Nearly half were research vessels.
Alaska, like Europe, has hopes for economic benefits from the melting ice, including easier access for Arctic oil and tourism, as well as the potential for expanded fisheries. The state also hopes to develop a shipping hub that services vessels traveling in the northern waters.
But there are dangers, and not just for polar bears, which are listed as a threatened species because of the projected habitat loss from melting sea ice.
“With increased shipping and marine traffic comes risk of vessel groundings, spills, collisions, pollutants, noise disturbances and invasive species,” said the 2012 report from the Alaska Legislature’s Northern Waters Task Force. “This risk is particularly high due to lack of detailed navigational charts, reliable weather forecasting, vessel traffic separation protocols, and search and rescue infrastructure.”
While the ice melt has been profound, the main force behind development of the northern sea route is global energy economics, said Lawson Brigham, a polar shipping expert and University of Alaska Fairbanks professor.
“What’s driving this traffic is natural resource development in Russia and northern Norway,” said Brigham, a former icebreaker captain. “Those cargoes are carried across the top of Eurasia to China, other countries in East Asia. But the primary client is China.”
The shale gas revolution in the United States also is playing a key role in the development of Arctic shipping from Europe to Asia. European natural gas-export projects, such as Norway’s Snow White facility in Hammerfest, originally were built for the American market.
“But by the time we were able to finish the factory, there was no American market,” said Borten Moe, the Norwegian oil minister.
The U.S. no longer needs imported natural gas because of its domestic shale bonanza. But Asian demand is high, and the northern sea route is a quicker way to the Far East.
Another factor in developing Arctic shipping is the search for energy sources in Asia other than nuclear power, in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. The recently completed first liquefied natural-gas shipment across the trans-Arctic route went from Hammerfest in Norway’s north to Japan.
The Arctic shortcut between Europe and Asia saves fuel costs and is free of the piracy that plagues shipping elsewhere. But Arctic navigation has challenges and costs, not least of which are expensive ice-breaking escorts for at least part of the passage.
“There were 46 vessels that went through the northern sea route and 18,000 vessels that go through the Suez Canal, so we’ve got a ways to go,” polar shipping expert Brigham said. “But the potential is absolutely there, because natural resources are crucial to Russia’s economy, and here is a way to use this route to move the resources to world markets.”