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Surprising Science

Global Warming Opens the Arctic

The continued downward trend of total sea ice in the Arctic is one of the most obvious bellwethers of climate change, and now it is allowing an even more striking reality. Ice cover has reduced so far that for the first time in modern history, a commercial cargo ship is going to attempt to travel across the Arctic.

Andrew Revkin at the New York Times blogged today that a German ship called the Beluga Fraternity, designed for travel through icy waters, would attempt the unprecedented voyage from South Korea all the way past the northern coast of Russia to either Belgium or the Netherlands. If successful, it would be the first commercial ship to travel from Asia to Europe through the Arctic.

Climate observers knew this was coming. The sea ice minimum last year wasn’t quite as low as the record low recorded in 2007, but it was the first time that both the passage across the northern coast of Russia and the Northwest Passage through Canada were both open simultaneously. And while climate scientists see the Arctic meltdown as another worrisome signal of global warming, it’s a target of opportunity for shipping and energy companies who’d like nothing more than to travel through the Arctic and access and its stores of fossil fuels.

However, the rush to access the Arctic could create a dangerous situation, as I wrote back in February for Popular Mechanics. A report by the Coastal Response Research Center said that the Arctic nations needed to work out a plan now for how to respond to emergency situations in the far-flung Arctic, which will inevitably happen when traffic through this treacherous region continues. And open water could provide greater opportunity for storm formation, making the Arctic even more dangerous.

However, the Coast Guard can at least ensure that drilling doesn’t begin until more studies of the changing Arctic are completed. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which provides scientific research for the Coast Guard, is trying to model how oil spills will move in icy waters. And energy companies can’t start exploring the Arctic until the Coast Guard approves their safety can cleanup plans. Done right, that could slow down the process and make sure we don’t start flooding the Arctic with ships before we’re ready to deal with the consequences.


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