Sea ice decline and 21st century trans-Arctic shipping routes

The observed decline in Arctic sea ice is projected to continue, opening shorter trade routes across the Arctic Ocean, with potentially global economic implications. Here we quantify, using Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5 global climate model simulations calibrated to remove spatial biases, how projected sea ice loss might increase opportunities for Arctic transit shipping. By midcentury for standard open water vessels, the frequency of navigable periods doubles, with routes across the central Arctic becoming available. A sea ice-ship speed relationship is used to show that European routes to Asia typically become 10 days faster via the Arctic than alternatives by midcentury, and 13 days faster by late century, while North American routes become 4 days faster. Future greenhouse gas emissions have a larger impact by late century; the shipping season reaching 4–8 months in Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP)8.5 double that of RCP2.6, both with substantial interannual variability. Moderately, ice-strengthened vessels likely enable Arctic transits for 10–12 months by late century.

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