A group of researchers assessed seven individual climate models and found that in each case common open water vessels will be able to navigate through portions of the Arctic, currently possible only with icebreaker ships, by the mid-century. Moreover, the thinning ice will allow ice-strengthened vessels to sail directly over the pole, something currently unimaginable, dramatically shortening travel distance, time and cost. The new shipping routes also means that governments need to revise their policies in order to tackle environmental, political and strategic threats.

Last year, a total of 46 ships made their way through the north of Russia via the “northern sea route” – considerably more than in the past due to a seven year streak of ever thinning Arctic ice. After assessing climate forecasts for the years 2040 to 2059, University of California researchers found that open water vessels should be able to travel along this route without the need of being escorted by icebreaker ships by 2050.

“We’re talking about a future in which open-water vessels will, at least during some years, be able to navigate unescorted through the Arctic, which at the moment is inconceivable,” says PhD candidate Scott Stephenson.

Projected Arctic shipping routes.

Projected Arctic shipping routes.

Moreover, the Arctic ice sheet is expect to thin and retreat to such an extent that polar icebreakers will be able to head from the Pacific to the Atlantic ocean by traveling straight across the North Pole. The best period for such an endeavor will be September, when historically annual sea ice cover in the Arctic Ocean is at its lowest extent.

Previously we’ve reported on a separate study that reached similar findings in its projections for the future, however this is the first to assert the sound possibility of an open shipping route through the North Pole itself.

“Nobody’s ever talked about shipping over the top of the North Pole,” says geography professor Laurence Smith. “This is an entirely unexpected possibility.”

With this in mind, in 2050 a shorter northern sea route is expected to save medium-sized bulk carrier 18 days and 580 tonnes of bunker fuel on a journey between northern Norway and China, translating in economic savings between $200,000 and $350,000 per trip. A journey straight through the North pole would mean 40% in savings, however.

New shipping routes mandate, however, new regulations which the world’s governments need now to consider. Russia, Canada and the United States will most likely engage in arguments over sea water sovereignty in the near future. Bitter picking between governments for economic benefits is of least interest to us however, what’s important is that strict laws regarding environmental protection that need to be put in place. The future’s Arctic routes are currently home to pristine environments that might become unbalanced as a result of busy and polluting ships.

“The prospect of common open water ships, which comprise the vast majority of the global fleet, entering the Arctic Ocean in late summer, and even its remote central basin by moderately ice-strengthened vessels heightens the urgency for a mandatory International Maritime Organisation regulatory framework to ensure adequate environmental protections, vessel safety standards, and search-and-rescue capability,” the report says.

The UCLA findings were reported in the journal PNAS.