Space & Innovation

Russia Prepares as Warming Climate Thaws Ice-Free Superhighway

A warming climate is opening up the northern sea route connecting northern Europe and Asian and North American ports. Russia has Arctic icebreakers at the ready. The United States has one.

Russia's superhighway to global power may not run through the neighboring Baltic States, Poland or Ukraine, but rather its northern sea route along the Arctic Ocean.

Climate scientists now have a better idea of what Russia's northern coastline will look like in the coming decades and it's probably going to be smoother sailing for oil tankers, cruise ships and naval destroyers that patrol these strategic waters.

Warmer global temperatures and thawing sea ice are opening a new shipping channel, cutting the distance from northern Europe to northeast Asia and northwest North America by half compared to routes through the Suez or Panama Canals, according to a new study in the journal Environmental Research Letters. At the same time, the region will be ice-free up to six months of the year by the end of this century.

"The opening of the northern sea route will significantly reduce expenses for icebreaker escort, shorten shipping time and diminish risks," Vyachislav Khon, a climate scientist at A.M. Obukhov Institute of Atmospheric Physics in Moscow, told Seeker via e-mail. "This will increase reliability and decreased cost of transit traffic through the NSR. To realize a potential benefit, however, it is required modernization of the Arctic transport system, more new ice-reinforced cargo ships and icebreakers."

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According to Khon's study, icebreakers will only be needed for 10 percent of Russia's future sea route.

It's not just commercial shipping that will be faster in the future. The changing ice conditions will likely lead to shifts in geopolitical military power as well.

Russia is already preparing for the opening of this sea route with a big boost in Arctic military bases, according to Foreign Policy.

In recent years, Russia unveiled a new Arctic command, four new Arctic brigade combat teams, 14 new operational airfields, 16 deepwater ports, and 40 icebreakers with an additional 11 in development.

In contrast, the United States has one working icebreaker for the Arctic - it's only other one is broken.

Khon and his colleagues used global climate models and existing satellite data to make their predictions of conditions along the northern Russian coastline.

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At the same time, as Khon's paper points out, the breakup of sea ice could cause other trouble for ships: stronger winds and bigger waves.

"Ice conditions are important," said Marika Holland, a sea ice and climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. "There are other risks, such as wave conditions and how storms might change in a warming arctic. All of things will also affect shipping."

Holland said while the general trend is for a more ice-free Arctic zone, there's still uncertainty about which areas will be most affected and the kind of weather conditions mariners should be expected in the future.

"One big question is how storminess is going to change in the Arctic," Holland said. "There's a lot of work being done on that and it is an active research topic. We don't completely know. There are these other aspects on how changes in the climate might be risks to shipping, so you have to look at the whole picture."

The melting ocean route could destroy coastlines as well, according to Tarmo Soomere, professor of coastal engineering at the Tallinn Institute of Technology in Estonia.

"A large part of Russian Arctic coasts are not rocky or sandy, and consist of just frozen mud," Soomere said. "When there is no protecting ice cover, these coastal sections will simply melt. While, Baltic Sea ice cover protects the coasts from the direct impact of waves, in such 'frozen mud' coasts the ice serves as an insulator. As a result, these coasts may easily retreat by some 100 meters in relatively warm summers. There seems to be no way to stop this process."

Top photo: The Arktika, shown here during its 2016 launch in St Petersburg, is the first of a new class of ships being built by Russia to forge a path through the Northern Sea Route. Credit: YouTube screen grab.

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