Implications of Climate Change for Shipping: Opening the Arctic Seas

by | Mar 1, 2018

How can sustainable Arctic navigation be developed?

Climate change presents many impacts on human activities, including shipping. In this regard, climate change impacts likely have both positive and negative elements, and Arctic shipping is a schematic exposition of potential climate change-related costs and benefits. Reduced ice cover may present opportunities as certain Arctic marine routes that have historically been covered by sea ice are becoming navigable for part of the year. Arctic thawing may present certain positive implications, such as shorter sea routes and increased resource availability. If so, it could trigger another phase of evolution in shipping, as Northern Hemisphere nautical distances decline with the use of Arctic waters instead of just conventional navigation routes via the world’s major canals.

However, the feasibility and economic viability of these Arctic routes are still under intense debate. Similarly, Arctic warming and increase shipping’s impacts on the environment and indigenous peoples are still not well understood, and research points to a variety of significant challenges.

Hitherto, existing research largely focuses on the technical/engineering problems and potential cost savings of using Arctic routes, leaving several crucial aspects understudied, for example: 1) Despite the potential benefits, some still argue there is a lack of real interest in Arctic shipping and that shipping stakeholders have yet to treat the Arctic routes as serious alternatives; 2) the opening of the Arctic waters will pose various environmental, social, and cultural impacts to surrounding regions, including a heightened risk of maritime accidents and environmental harm due to the lack of infrastructural support; 3) given the complex nature of the Arctic, what should be the right approach for further research?

Understanding such, an article published in WIREs Climate Change  reviews the impacts of climate change on the future and development of Arctic shipping. The authors found that there are many challenges to overcome if responsible Arctic shipping is to be achieved, including: physical constraints, questionable economic feasibility, indifferent (or even negative) attitudes of shipping stakeholders, a serious scarcity of quality infrastructures and know-how that ensures safety and sustainability, the uncertain and strong impact of Arctic shipping on the indigenous population and Arctic ecosystems, and the need to improve a framework that can effectively govern and facilitate sustainable shipping in the Arctic, to name but a few.

The authors argue that further research should develop methods and tools that can accurately assess the costs and benefits of opening the Arctic waters, especially the socio–economic and environmental impacts of increased shipping activities. This contributes to the establishment of multiple ‘sustainable’ Arctic navigation corridors and catalyzes the formation of sustainable shipping networks. The complex nature requires future research to gather collective knowledge from different disciplines, and close collaboration between natural and social scientists is especially important.


Kindly contributed by Adolf Ng.

Related posts: