In Box

Ice Breaker

Long a deadly dream for mariners the world over, an ice-free shipping route through the Arctic may soon become a reality. That is the conclusion of a recently declassified U.S. Navy-sponsored report on "Naval Operations in an Ice-Free Arctic," which examines the strategic implications of a dramatic reduction in Arctic ice coverage due to climate ...

Long a deadly dream for mariners the world over, an ice-free shipping route through the Arctic may soon become a reality. That is the conclusion of a recently declassified U.S. Navy-sponsored report on "Naval Operations in an Ice-Free Arctic," which examines the strategic implications of a dramatic reduction in Arctic ice coverage due to climate change. The opening of new sea lanes will affect everything from U.S. submarine operations to commercial shipping costs and drug smuggling. In fact, according to Dennis Conlon, head of the High Latitude Dynamics Search Program at the Office of Naval Research, this development "is as important as the Panama Canal or [the explorations of] Marco Polo."

The report uses past warming trends to project that the volume of Arctic sea ice will decrease by nearly 40 percent in 20 years. New shipping routes could open along the north shores of Canada, Russia, and Alaska for a few months a year in as little as five years; by then, Russia’s Northeast Passage (also known as the Northern Sea Route) could be open to non-ice-strengthened vessels for at least two months each summer.

New Arctic sea lanes will cut the distance of a voyage between Europe and East Asia by a third, and commercial shipping throughout the area is expected to increase significantly. Among the many other economic ramifications that the report highlights are greater collaboration between the European Union and Russia in developing Siberian oil and gas resources, the opening of previously impenetrable areas to oil and gas exploration, and the exploitation of untapped fisheries.

The strategic consequences are likewise great. Submarines that once played cat-and-mouse under the ice cap will no longer have as many places to hide. Canada and the United States will have new coastlines to defend. Moreover, the report not only predicts the use of new routes by drug smugglers and alien traffickers, but it also warns of the possibility of hostile action by "potential belligerents comprised of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), terrorists, and environmental activists." Throw in the possible cataclysmic effects on the Arctic environment as well as the inevitable clashes over freedom of navigation in disputed waters, and it’s enough to make you nostalgic for the days of the Cold War, if not the Ice Age.

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