Between 2005 and 2009, a total of 64,000 square miles of multi-year ice – an area larger than New England – has vanished. The Arctic Ocean seems destined to become like the Great Lakes, frozen only in winter. The loss of thick multi-year ice – some of it as old as Egypt’s pyramids – leaves only thin, annual ice to cover the Arctic in winter. Scientists predict climate change will also bring more extreme weather and storms of greater intensity to Arctic seas.
An unprecedented wave of new ship traffic is headed into these increasingly ice-free, turbulent seas, including cruise ships, oil, gas and mining vessels, and commercial, research and fishing boats. Global shipping companies are planning routes across the top of the globe that will shave days off voyages through the Panama Canal or around Cape Horn.
In 2007, Canada’s Northwest Passage – connecting the Atlantic and Pacific through the high Arctic islands just below the North Pole – was passable for the first time. In 2008 alone, 62 ships used the Passage for regional shipping and a few even travelled the entire distance. More than 70 cruise ships sailed in the neighboring waters of Canada’s Arctic Archipelago and Greenland.
In response to the projected growth of shipping, Arctic nations are calling for tighter shipping regulations to protect human lives and the fragile ecosystem. The Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment is a four-year study led by Canada, the U.S. and Finland for the eight-nation Arctic Council. It contains detailed recommendations on how to prepare for the next 20 years. Highlights include:
- Preventing the next Exxon Valdez: The environmental damage caused when the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989 is still apparent in the region. To prevent a similar disaster in the Arctic, the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment report calls for far better ice navigation information, updated charts for newly open waters, a marine traffic monitoring system, mandatory environmental standards for all vessels and icebreakers with circumpolar spill response capabilities. These measures are critical in the Arctic Ocean, an even more challenging environment moving ice, dark winters and hazardous weather conditions.
- Averting the next Titanic: The dramatic abandonment of the M/V Explorer cruise ship in Antarctic waters in 2007 showed that unregulated operation of such vessels in polar waters is dangerous. All ships operating in the Arctic should be constructed to Polar Class standards and their crews trained to work in Arctic waters. Most importantly, Arctic countries must commit urgently to develop search and rescue capabilities.
- Keeping the snow white: Burning dirty fuel in ships produces smog and black carbon. [link to black carbon] Emissions from increased Arctic shipping could triple ozone pollution, subjecting northern communities to levels experienced in southern cities. As black carbon settles on snow and ice, they absorb more heat and melt more quickly. Scientists recently concluded that black carbon accounts for almost 50 percent of climate change in the Arctic. Yet new rules about black carbon emissions announced by Canada and the U.S. in 2009 specifically excluded ships operating in the Arctic.
- Protecting Arctic people and their environment: Arctic communities need to be involved in developing shipping regulations. Key areas that are ecologically and culturally sensitive need to be identified. Marine highways should avoid places that indigenous peoples use for their traditional way of life. Marine mammals, from narwhal to walrus to polar bears and seals, must be protected, as should the rest of the fragile Arctic food web -- right down to the algae production of the ice edge.
Ship traffic needs to be tightly regulated to maximize benefits and minimize the damage. The U.S. Senate should quickly ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty that provides a bedrock of Arctic cooperation. The U.S. and Canada should set an example by implementing shipping safety controls under their jurisdiction and collaborating with other Arctic countries for the necessary international actions.