Shipping Through Warming Arctic Will Hasten Global Warming

The ice that has bound the Arctic together is diminishing each passing summer, and open water is becoming available for the first time in recorded history. Shipping companies are already planning and executing passes through the ice to minimize their costs, but at what cost to the environment?

A new study from US and Canadian researchers to be published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics shows that a new route through the Arctic will have dire repercussions to the surrounding climate.

Damaging the Arctic, Increasing Warming

The ships will be bringing pollution of a sort the region has not seen before in such quantities, which will accelerate climate change. But greenhouse gasses of the sort released by the vessels are not the only problem the Arctic will be facing. The exhaust particles from each ship that passes through could increase warming from anywhere between 17% and 78%.

“One of the most potent ‘short-lived climate forcers’ in diesel emissions is black carbon, or soot,” says James J. Corbett, a lead author of the study and a member of the University of Delaware’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment faculty. “Ships operating in or near the Arctic use advanced diesel engines that release black carbon into one of the most sensitive regions for climate change.”

These particles will absorb sunlight directly from the sun and reflected from the surface, heating the atmosphere in the process. Other particles will act similarly, short-lived but deadly for the environment.

Among the research team’s most significant findings:

  • Global warming potential in 2030 in the high-growth scenario suggests that short-lived forcing of ~4.5 gigatons of black carbon from Arctic shipping may increase the global warming potential due to ships’ carbon dioxide emissions (~42,000 gigagrams) by some 17-78 percent.
  • Ship traffic diverting from current routes to new routes through the Arctic is projected to reach 2 percent of global traffic by 2030 and to 5 percent in 2050. In comparison, shipping volumes through the Suez and Panama canals currently account for about 4 percent and 8 percent of global trade volume, respectively.
  • A Northwest Passage and Northeast Passage through the Arctic Ocean would provide a distance savings of about 25 percent and 50 percent, respectively, with coincident time and fuel savings. However, the team says tradeoffs from the short-lived climate forcing impacts must be studied.
  • To calculate possible benefits of policy action, the study provides “maximum feasible reduction scenarios” that take into account the incorporation of emissions control technologies such as seawater scrubbers that absorb sulfur dioxide emitted during the burning of diesel fuel. Their scenario shows that with controls, the amount of Arctic black carbon from shipping can be reduced in the near term and held nearly constant through 2050.

“To understand the value of addressing short-lived climate forcers from shipping, you need to know the impacts of these emissions, the feasibility and availability of technologies that could be put in place to reduce these impacts, and then engage the policy-making community to debate the evidence and agree on a plan,” Corbett notes. “Our hope is that this study will enable better communication of emerging science with policy makers and aid the eight Arctic Council nations with climate policy.”

Source: University of Delaware
Image Source: Prof. James Corbett, University of Delaware

1 thought on “Shipping Through Warming Arctic Will Hasten Global Warming”

  1. One of the other dangers is the regular dumping of trash, sewage, and ballast tanks which may contain invasive species.

    The Arctic Ocean is one of the most pristine bodies of water on earth with thousands of species that are not found anywhere else. Hundreds of bird species depend on the surrounding lands for their summer feeding.

    It strikes me that in the pursuit of cutting expenses and making more money for corporations, we are endangering a system that literally cannot be replaced. More short-term planning that makes no long term sense.

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