Climate Change: Will Enough Arctic Ice Melt to Open the Northwest Passage?


A study on the potential for future shipping routes through the infamously dangerous Northwest Passage of the arctic was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The National Academy of Sciences was founded in 1863 to provide government leaders with up-to-date, unbiased, and accurate scientific information. Their reports are open to the public free of charge.

This particular study was led by Dr. Laurence C. Smith and co-authored by UCLA Ph.D candidate Scott R. Stephenson. They compared the impacts on climate models of a 2.3 degree Celsius increase and a 4.9 degree Celsius increase in global temperatures by 2100. Different degree inputs are used in studies such as this one to compensate for unknown factors such as feedback loops and whether humans will cut down on their carbon emissions, increase them, or continue at the same rate. Even the most conservative scientific models hold that the earth’s temperature will increase in coming years.

From 1979-2005, the probability of a water vessel being able to withstand a journey through the Northwest Passage in September (the month with the least ice formation) was only about 40%. Smith and Stephenson’s findings show that by 2040-2059 the probability should increase to 94% or 98% (depending on the projected scenario).

"The development is both exciting from an economic development point of view and worrisome in terms of safety, both for the Arctic environment and for the ships themselves," Smith told UCLA’s Newsroom. In 2011, the Suez Canal reportedly racked in a record $5.2 billion from the fees charged to ships for passage. What country would benefit from passage fees through the Arctic?

The region is already rife with territorial disputes amongst many countries including the United States, Canada, Russia, Denmark, and Norway. Further abilities to traverse the area could provoke geopolitical conflicts.

Controversy also remains high within countries themselves. The oil industry wants to use increased access to the Arctic to further exploit its natural resources, while environmental groups want to see the area protected. "Burning oil caused the melting in the first place," Greenpeace wrote on its official website.

The irresponsible usage of the Arctic could further our dependence on fossil fuels, produce sea level rise, and increase the frequency of other dangerous climatic events. The Obama administration has spoken positively about ratifying the United Nations Law of the Sea Treaty, which would grant countries sovereignty over their continental shelf up to 200 miles from the shoreline.

This would be a great opportunity for the United States to help prevent conflict and show leadership in sustainable strategies, by designating "their" part of the Arctic closed for mining. Unfortunately, a fact sheet provided by the U.S. Department of State detailing the reasons why the treaty should be ratified, concentrated on ways it would help the oil and gas industry.