Arctic Ice Still Too Thick for Shipping

Ice Route

Published Oct 1, 2015 3:01 PM by The Maritime Executive

Though the recession of the ice caps is a foreboding global issue, its one anticipated benefit has been the creation of new shipping lanes in previously unnavigable routes. But recent research from York University predicts that it will be several decades before a northern hipping route connecting Northwest Europe to countries such as Japan, China and South Korea will be a viable shipping route.

Called the Northwest Passage (NWP), would create a shipping lane between markets in the northern Pacific and Atlantic regions which would be about 2,500 miles shorter than routes through the Panama and Suez Canals.

NWP would also serve as an alternate route to the Northern Sea Route (NSR), has been ice-free in the summer since 2007 and has gained traction as an alternative shipping lane. NSR is characterized by the presence of thin first-year ice with portions of multi-year ice interspersed. The melting of first-year ice in the summer has allowed a steadily increasing number of ships to use it in recent years.

Conversely, NWP is made up of multi-year ice cold enough to survive several summers with portions of first-year ice interspersed. According to York University’s study, NWP’s multi-year ice composition makes it far too treacherous a shipping lane to consider in the near future.

According to Dr. Christian Haas, the study’s lead researcher, ice thickness plays the most important role in assessing shipping hazards.

“While everyone only looks at ice extent or area, because it is so easy to do with satellites, we study ice thickness,“ Hass said. “Ice thickness is important to assess overall changes of ice volume, and helps to understand why and where the ice is most vulnerable to summer melt.”

York University discovered a mean ice thickness of six and a half to ten feet in most regions of the NWP, and some multi-year ice regions contained ice pockets that were up to 327 feet thick.

The study also suggests further ice melting could make NWP passage more difficult because it could cause more multi-year ice to drift into the passage and make it less navigable.

Click here to read the full study.