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Arctic Ice Melt Triggers Increased Ship Traffic, Accelerating Climate Change, Study Says

Credit: Figure courtesy of Prof. James Corbett, University of Delaware; published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, Vol. 10, 2010.

For a long time, commercial sea routes have expanded and increased their traffic as the economies of the countries they were linking evolved. They have now reached a spot in which they pose a significant threat to climate change, or at least the routes that cross the Arctic Ocean, one of the world’s most climate-sensitive areas.

A team of U.S. and Canadian researchers have recently put emphasis on this phenomenon and showed how new routes connecting trade partners on the premises of the warming and ice melting in the Arctic Ocean could further accelerate the ice melting in the area.

The main problem is with the exhaust particles from the ships’ diesel engines – small particles of black carbon (soot), which attract heat and light, both direct and reflected. Recent studies say diesel exhaust particles could increase warming by some 17-78 percent

“One of the most potent ‘short-lived climate forcers’ in diesel emissions is black carbon, or soot,” says James J. Corbett, professor of marine science and policy at the University of Delaware, and one of the lead authors of the study. “Ships operating in or near the Arctic use advanced diesel engines that release black carbon into one of the most sensitive regions for climate change.”

From the study’s conclusions, the team produced a high-resolution map showing the growth in shipping in the region through 2050, previewing potential new Arctic shipping routes.

Quoting Eurekalert, their most important findings are:

  • Global warming potential in 2030 in the high-growth scenario suggests that short-lived forcing of ~4.5 gigatons of black carbon from Arctic shipping may increase the global warming potential due to ships’ carbon dioxide emissions (~42,000 gigagrams) by some 17-78 percent.
  • Ship traffic diverting from current routes to new routes through the Arctic is projected to reach 2 percent of global traffic by 2030 and to 5 percent in 2050. In comparison, shipping volumes through the Suez and Panama canals currently account for about 4 percent and 8 percent of global trade volume, respectively.
  • A Northwest Passage and Northeast Passage through the Arctic Ocean would provide a distance savings of about 25 percent and 50 percent, respectively, with coincident time and fuel savings. However, the team says tradeoffs from the short-lived climate forcing impacts must be studied.
  • To calculate possible benefits of policy action, the study provides “maximum feasible reduction scenarios” that take into account the incorporation of emissions control technologies such as seawater scrubbers that absorb sulfur dioxide emitted during the burning of diesel fuel. Their scenario shows that with controls, the amount of Arctic black carbon from shipping can be reduced in the near term and held nearly constant through 2050.

The most important decision before setting new routes for ships is to take this data into account and to immediately seek alternative technologies, alternatives to diesel and most importantly to set agreements with all of the involved parties and companies so that these regulations are held considering the plan. Otherwise, we would risk of having the ice melt faster and faster and forcefully lead an accelerated climate change.

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  1. The planet is NOT dying.
    Remove the CO2 factor from the environmental equation and nothing changes except we go from fear to hope to courage to bravery. Stop trying to scare my kids but even they are laughing.


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