Climate Change and Loss of Arctic Sea Ice (27)
Record low extent of Arctic sea ice in 2007 focused scientific and policy attention on its linkage to global climate change, and to the implications of projected ice-free (28) seasons in the Arctic within decades. The Arctic has been projected by several scientists to be ice-free in the late summer in most years as soon as the late 2030s. (29) This opens opportunities for transport through the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route, extraction of potential oil and gas resources, and expanded fishing and tourism (Figure 3). Loss of Arctic sea ice could also impact traditional livelihoods and cultures in the region and survival of polar bear and other animal populations, and raise risks of pollution, food supply, safety, and national security.
Like the rest of the globe, temperatures in the Arctic have varied over the past century, but show a significant warming trend, especially since the 1970s. (30) The annual average temperature for the Arctic region (from 60[degrees] to 90[degrees] N) is now about 1.8[degrees] F warmer than the average for the "climate normal" (the average from 1961 to 1990). Temperatures in October-November are now about 9o F above the seasonal normal. Scientists have concluded that most of the global warming of the last three decades is very likely caused by human-related emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG, mostly carbon dioxide); they expect the GHG-induced warming to continue for decades, even if, and after, GHG concentrations in the atmosphere have been stabilized.
Modeling of GHG-induced climate change is particularly challenging for the Arctic, but it consistently projects warming through the 21st century, with annual average Arctic temperature increases ranging from +1[degrees] to +9.0[degrees] C (+2[degrees] to +19.0[degrees] F), depending on the GHG scenario and model used. While such warming is projected by most models throughout the Arctic, some models project slight cooling localized in the North Atlantic Ocean just south of Greenland and Iceland. Most warming would occur in autumn and winter, "with very little temperature change projected over the Arctic Ocean" in summer months. (31)
The observed warmer temperatures in the Arctic have reduced sea ice extent and thickness, and the amount of ice that persists year-round ("perennial ice"); natural climate variability has likely contributed as well, such as in the record low ice extent of 2007. The 2007 record minimum sea ice extent was influenced by warm Arctic temperatures and warm, moist winds blowing from the North Pacific into the central Arctic, contributing to melting and pushing ice toward and into the Atlantic past Greenland. Warm winds did not account for the near-record sea ice minimum in 2008. (32)
Due to observed and projected climate change, scientists have concluded that the Arctic will have changed from an ice-covered environment to a recurrent ice-free (33) ocean (in summers) as soon as the late 2030s. The character of ice cover is expected to change as well, with the ice being thinner and more fragile. The variability from year to year of both ice quantity and location could be expected to continue.
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Territorial Claims and Sovereignty Issues (34)
Motivated in part by a desire to exercise sovereign control over the Arctic region's increasingly accessible oil and gas reserves (see "Oil, Gas, and Mineral Exploration"), the four Arctic coastal states other than the United States--Canada, Russia, Norway, and Denmark (of which Greenland is a territory)--are in the process of preparing territorial claims in the Arctic, including claims for expanded Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), for submission to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. (As mentioned earlier--see "U.S. Activities As a Non-Party to UNCLOS"--the United States, as a non-party to UNCLOS, cannot participate as a member of the commission; it cannot submit a claim under Article 76. Over the years, however, it has submitted observations on submissions made by other states, requesting that those observations be made available online and to the commission. In addition, since 2001, the United States has gathered and analyzed data to determine the outer limits of its extended continental shelf.)
Russia has been attempting to chart the Arctic Ocean's enormous underwater Lomonosov Ridge in an attempt to show that it is an extension of Russia's continental margin. The Russian claim to this ridge, if accepted, would reportedly grant Russia nearly one-half of the Arctic area; a 2001 claim submitted by Russia was rejected as insufficiently documented. Canada also claims a portion of the Lomonosov Ridge as part of its own underwater continental shelf. (35) In August 2007, a Russian submersible on a research expedition deposited an encased Russian Federation flag on the seabed of the presumed site of the North Pole. The action captured worldwide attention, but analysts note that it did not constitute an official claim to the territory and was therefore a purely symbolic act.
At a May 2008 meeting in Ilulissat, Greenland, the five Arctic coastal states reaffirmed their commitment to the UNCLOS legal framework for the establishment of extended continental shelf limits in the Arctic. (36) (For further discussion, see "Extent of the Continental Margin" in "Oil, Gas, and Mineral Exploration.")
In addition to this process, there are four unresolved Arctic territorial disputes:
* Scientists have forecast that in coming decades, global warming will reduce the ice pack in Canada's northern archipelago sufficiently to permit ships to use the trans-Arctic shipping route known as the Northwest Passage during the summer months (see "Commercial Sea Transportation"). The prospect of such traffic raises a major jurisdictional question. Ottawa maintains that such a passage would be an inland waterway, and would therefore be sovereign Canadian territory subject to Ottawa's surveillance, regulation, and control. The United States, the European Union, and others assert that the passage would constitute an international strait between two high seas.
* The United States and Canada are negotiating over a binational boundary in the Beaufort Sea.
* The United States and Russia in 1990 signed an agreement regarding a disputed area of the Bering Sea; the U.S. Senate ratified the pact the following year, but the Russian Duma has yet to approve the accord.
* Denmark and Canada disagree over which country has the territorial right to Hans Island, a tiny, barren piece of rock between Greenland and Canada's Ellesmere Island. Some analysts believe the two countries are vying for control over a future sea lane that might be created if the Arctic ice were to melt sufficiently to create a Northwest Passage. Others claim that the governments are staking out territorial claims in the event that future natural resource discoveries make the region economically valuable. (37)
In addition to these disputes, Norway and Russia had been at odds for decades over the boundary between the two in the so-called "Grey Zone" in the Barents Sea, an area believed to hold rich undersea deposits of petroleum. On September 15, 2010, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed an agreement in Murmansk, a Russian city near the Norwegian border. The accord awards roughly half of the 175,000-square-kilometer area to each country; it spells out fishing rights, and provides for the joint development of future oil and gas finds that straddle the boundary line. Some observers believe it is noteworthy that Russia would concede sovereignty over such a large, resource-rich territory to a small, neighboring country. But others have noted that Moscow may be hoping for Norwegian cooperation in developing offshore resources, and eventually in winning approval when Russia submits its Article 76 UNCLOS claim. (38)
In August 2010, Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon announced a new "Statement of Canada's Arctic Policy," which reaffirmed the government's commitment to Canada's sovereignty in the region, to economic and social development, to environmental protection, and to empowerment of the peoples in the north. The statement also emphasized the government's intention to negotiate settlements to its disputes with the United States over the Beaufort Sea boundary, and with Denmark over Hans Island. Minister Cannon declared that "making progress on outstanding boundary issues will be a top priority." (39) Also, despite their dispute over Hans Island, Canada and Denmark have been working together on Arctic issues. In May 2010, the two countries' military chiefs of staffs signed a memorandum of understanding on Arctic Defense, Security, and Operational Cooperation, committing the two countries to "enhanced consultation, information exchange, visits, and exercises." (40)
Commercial Sea Transportation (41)
The search for a shorter route from the Atlantic to Asia has been the quest of maritime powers since the Middle Ages. The melting of Arctic ice raises the possibility of saving several thousands of miles and several days of sailing between major trading blocs. (42) If the Arctic were to become a viable shipping route, the ramifications could extend far beyond the Arctic. For example, lower shipping costs could be advantageous for China (at least its northeast region), Japan, and South Korea because their manufactured products exported to Europe or North America could become less expensive relative to other emerging manufacturing centers in Southeast Asia, such as India. (43) Melting ice could potentially open up two trans-Arctic routes (see Figure 3): (44)
* The Northern Sea Route (NSR, a.k.a. the "Northeast Passage"), along Russia's northern border from Murmansk to Provideniya, is about 2,600 nautical miles in length. It was opened by the Soviet Union to shipping in 1931 but was not opened to the rest of the world until 1991. Even so, these waters are little used by non-Russian ships. (45) This route would be applicable for trade between northeast Asia (north of Singapore) and northern Europe.
* The Northwest Passage (NWP) runs through the Canadian Arctic Islands. The NWP actually consists of several potential routes. The southern route is through Peel Sound in Nunavut, which has been open the past three summers and contains mostly one-year ice. However, this route is circuitous, contains some narrow channels, and is shallow enough to impose draft restrictions on ships. The more northern route, through McClure Strait from Baffin Bay to the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska, is much more direct, and therefore more appealing to ocean carriers, but more prone to ice blockage. (46) The NWP is potentially applicable for trade between northeast Asia (north of Shanghai) and the northeast of North America, but is considered by many to be less commercially viable than the NSR. (47)
Destination Traffic, Not Trans-Arctic Traffic
Almost all cargo ship activity currently taking place in the Arctic is to transport natural resources from the Arctic or to deliver general cargo and supplies to communities and natural resource extraction facilities. Thus, cargo ship traffic in the Arctic presently is mostly regional, not trans-Arctic. While there has been a recent uptick in Arctic shipping activity, this activity has more to do with a spike in commodity prices than it does with the melting of Arctic ice. Even so, recent activity is less than it has been in the past. The NSR continues to account for the bulk of Arctic shipping activity. The western end of the NSR, in the Barents Sea, is open year round. Further east, sections of the NSR are open for as little as two and a half months during the summer. From Murmansk, oil is transported to Europe, as well as ore and timber, while general cargo and fuel are delivered to the port by ship. Nickel and copper are also shipped from the northern coast of Russia. Coal has been shipped from Svalbard to Europe for almost a century. The Murmansk Shipping Company keeps the NSR route open with nuclear powered icebreakers. It is partially owned by LukOil, which has a fleet of ice-strengthened oil tankers. Norilsk Nickel, a large producer of nickel, is also a large shipper in NSR and is currently building five reinforced cargo vessels. In NWP waters, general cargo is shipped along Alaska's north coast between Point Barrow and Prudhoe Bay and zinc is shipped from the Red Dog Mine in Alaska. Crude oil tankers load at Bent Horn and Cameron Island in the Canadian Arctic.
Cruise Ship Activity
Considerable cruise ship activity takes place in Arctic waters. In the summer of 2007, three cruise ships reportedly sailed through the NWP from the Atlantic to Alaska's North Slope. (48) In the Barents Sea, there are regular cruise ships sailing to Svalbard. The inherent dangers for passenger ships in the Arctic have prompted calls for international regulations promoting the safety of cruise ships in the area. Some have suggested that cruise ships sail in pairs to provide assistance to one another, given the Arctic's remoteness and the difficulty land based rescuers would have in reaching a vessel in distress. (49) Requiring that Arctic cruise vessels have ice-strengthened hulls and be equipped with enclosed lifeboats could be other safety requirements. In 2003, some Arctic cruise and tourist operators formed the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO) to establish agreed-upon safety and environmental protection guidelines, but this organization only covers the portion of the Arctic around Greenland, Svalbard, and Jan Mayen. (50)
Unpredictable Ice Conditions Hinder Trans-Arctic Shipping
Arctic waters do not necessarily have to be ice free to be open to shipping. Multiyear ice can be over 10 feet thick and problematic even for icebreakers, but one-year ice is typically three feet thick or less. This thinner ice can be more readily broken up by icebreakers or ice class ships. However, more open water in the Arctic has resulted in another potential obstacle to shipping, namely unpredictable ice flows. In the NWP, melting ice and the opening of waters that were once covered with one-year ice has allowed blocks of multiyear ice from farther north, or icebergs from Greenland, to flow into potential sea lanes. The source of this multiyear ice is not predicted to dissipate in spite of climate change. Moreover, the flow patterns of these ice blocks are very difficult to predict, and they have blocked potential routes for shipping. (51) Thus, the lack of ice in potential sea lanes during the summer months can add even greater unpredictability to Arctic shipping. This is in addition to the extent of ice versus open water, which is also highly variable from one year to the next and seasonally. As mentioned above, "ice free" does not mean "no ice" and the presence of even small blocks of ice or icebergs from a melting Greenland ice sheet requires slow sailing.
The unpredictability of ice conditions is a major hindrance for trans-Arctic shipping in general, but can be more of a concern for some types of ships than it is for others. For instance, it would be less of a concern for cruise ships, which may have the objective of merely visiting the Arctic rather than passing through the Arctic and could change their route and itinerary depending on ice conditions. On the other hand, unpredictability is of the utmost concern for container ships that carry thousands of containers from hundreds of different customers, all of whom expect to unload or load their cargo upon the ship's arrival at various ports as indicated on the ship's advertised schedule. Other ships carrying entirely one commodity in bulk from one port to another for just one customer could have more flexibility in terms of a delivery window, but would not likely risk an Arctic passage under prevailing conditions.
Ice is not the sole impediment to Arctic shipping. Adverse weather is also an impediment. This includes not only severe storms, but also intense cold, which can impair deck machinery. During the summer months when shipping is most likely to occur, heavy fog is most common in the Arctic. Operating costs are higher in the Arctic. Ship size is an important factor in reducing freight costs, and many ships sailing in other waters would require two icebreakers to break a path wide enough for them to sail through. (52) Also, icebreakers or ice-class cargo vessels burn more fuel than is required to sail through open water and ships would have to sail at slower speeds. The shipping season in the Arctic only lasts for a few weeks. Icebreakers and other special required equipment would sit idle the remainder of the year. None of these impediments by themselves may be enough to discourage Arctic passage but they do raise costs, perhaps enough to negate the savings of a shorter route. Thus, from a shipper's perspective, shorter via the Arctic does not necessarily mean cheaper and faster. (53)
Basic Navigation Infrastructure Is Lacking
Considerable investment in navigation-related infrastructure would be required if trans-Arctic shipping were to become a reality. Channel marking buoys and other floating visual aids are not possible in Arctic waters because moving ice sheets will continuously shift their positions. Therefore, marine surveys and ice charts would need to be relied on exclusively. For some areas in the Arctic, however, these surveys and charts are out of date and not sufficiently accurate. (54) To remedy this problem, aviation reconnaissance of ice conditions and satellite images would need to become readily available for ship operators. (55) Ship-to-shore communication infrastructure would need to be installed where possible. Refueling stations may be needed, as well as, perhaps, transshipment ports where cargo can be transferred to and from ice capable vessels at both ends of Arctic routes. Shipping lines would need to develop a larger pool of mariners with ice navigation experience. Marine insurers would need to calculate the proper level of risk premium for polar routes, which would require more detailed information about Arctic accidents and incidents in the past.
Regulation of Arctic Shipping
Due to the international nature of the shipping industry, maritime trading nations have adopted international treaties that establish standards for ocean carriers in terms of safety, pollution prevention, and security. These standards are agreed upon by shipping nations through the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a United Nations agency that first met in 1959. (56) Key conventions that the 168 IMO member nations have adopted include the Safety of Life at Sea Convention (SOLAS), which was originally adopted in response to the Titanic disaster in 1912 but has since been revised several times; the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), which was adopted in 1973 and modified in 1978; and the Standards for Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (SCTW), which was adopted in 1978 and amended in 1995. It is up to ratifying nations to enforce these standards. The United States is a party to these conventions and the U.S. Coast Guard enforces these regulations when it boards and inspects ships and crews arriving at U.S. ports and the very few ships engaged in international trade that sail under the U.S. flag. Like the United States, most of the other major maritime trading nations lack the ability to enforce these regulations as a "flag state" because much of the world's merchant fleet is registered under so-called "flags of convenience." While most ship owners and operators are headquartered in developed countries, they often register their ships in Panama, Liberia, the Bahamas, the Marshall Islands, Malta, and Cyprus, among other "open registries," because these nations offer more attractive tax and employment regulatory regimes. Because of this development, most maritime trading nations enforce shipping regulations under a "port state control" regime--that is, they require compliance with these regulations as a condition of calling at their ports. The fragmented nature of ship ownership and operation can be a further hurdle to regulatory enforcement. It is common for cargo ships to be owned by one company, operated by a second company (which markets the ship's space), and managed by a third (which may supply the crew and other services a ship requires to sail), each of which could be headquartered in different countries.