Public Release: 

Arctic meltdown

New Scientist

There will be anarchy as northern seas open up to shipping

THE Arctic ice cap is melting at a rate that could allow routine commercial shipping through the far north in a decade and open up new fisheries. But a report for the US Navy seen by New Scientist reveals that naval vessels will be unable to police these areas.

It was in 1906, after centuries of attempts, that Roald Amundsen finally navigated the North-West Passage through the sea ice north of Canada. Even today, only specially strengthened ships can make the trip.

But in 10 years' time, if melting patterns change as predicted, the North-West Passage could be open to ordinary shipping for a month each summer. And the Northern Sea Route across the top of Russia could allow shipping for at least two months a year in as little as five years.

The new routes will slash the distances for voyages between Europe and East Asia by a third, and open up new fisheries. The resulting boom in shipping could lead to conflicts, as nations try to enforce fisheries rules, prevent smuggling and piracy, and protect the Arctic environment from oil spills. To complicate matters, Russia and Canada consider their northern sea routes as national territory, while the US regards them as international waters.

These predictions come in a recently declassified report of a meeting of American, British and Canadian Arctic and naval experts in April last year, organised by Dennis Conlon of the US Office of Naval Research in Arlington, Virginia. Entitled Naval Operations in an Ice-Free Arctic, the report reveals that standard naval operations could be close to impossible in Arctic waters. The biggest problem is that communications satellites do not cover the area well, says Conlon.

Modern ships and weapons rely on various kinds of sensors but none work well in Arctic conditions, he adds. Ice complicates the way sound travels through water, making sonar and acoustic monitoring difficult. Icy decks and high winds make it extremely difficult for aircraft to operate. Unbroken summer daylight makes covert operations harder.

The US and the Soviet Union invested heavily in Arctic research throughout the cold war, because it was a place where submarines could hide under the ice, ready to surface and launch nuclear missiles. But that research has stopped and no new work is planned.

Peter Wadhams of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge agrees that the Arctic could soon open up. "Within a decade we can expect regular summer trade there,"he predicts.

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Author: Debora MacKenzie

New Scientist issue: 3rd March 2002

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