INTRO: Recently, the Bush Administration conceded that global warming is real, that the earth's climate is getting warmer. The administration also said a warmer climate will have a very real impact on the lives of nearly all of us. In few places will these impacts be felt more quickly than in the high Arctic, where scientists say the polar ice cap is fast disappearing. But as Doug Schneider reports in this week's Arctic Science Journeys Radio, an open Arctic Ocean may mean new routes for the world's shipping trade.
STORY: Much of the area inside the Arctic Circle is covered by the Arctic Ocean, and much of that ocean is currently covered by ice. The ice makes it hard for ships to travel there, but that problem seems to be melting away.
During the past 50 years, the Arctic Ocean's ice cover has been steadily shrinking. The U.S. Navy released a report this year that documents the change, and some people predict that within another 50 years, the Arctic Ocean might be completely free of ice during the summer.
BRIGHAM: "When you add up all of the observations taken over the last five decades the changes are extraordinary."
That's Lawson Brigham with the U.S. Arctic Research Commission.
BRIGHAM: "We might not yet be able to tell whether it's natural climate fluctuation in the polar regions of the Arctic, or if these changes are due to global warming or increases in greenhouse gases. We really don't know precisely what the causes are."
Scientists estimate that the polar ice cap thickness has already shrunk by 40 percent and that the extent of the ice coverage has decreased by nearly 20 percent. So much melting ice likely will disrupt whale migrations, and cause hardships for other animals like seals and polar bears that live along the ice edge. But for people, there's at least one upside. Brigham says ships may have new, much shorter routes between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
BRIGHAM: "For folks looking at the marine transport issue—the use of the Arctic Ocean for shipping—quite clearly the changes have taking place and so the access to the Arctic Ocean, at least in the decades ahead will be much greater than in the past. If the ice continues to retreat, it will happen first around the margins of the Arctic Ocean, where traditionally some ships have sailed—along the north of Eurasia, along the top of Russia in the Russian Arctic. And of course, the Northwest Passage also is an area where there could be ships sailing through the Canadian archipelago and across the top of Canada and Alaska."
Brigham says the open ocean also could make it easier for ships to reach deposits of oil, gas and minerals within the Arctic Ocean. Already, U.S. and Canadian Naval ships, and at least one cruise ship have made exploratory visits into the Northwest Passage. Brigham says such traffic likely will increase in the future.
BRIGHAM: "If, in fact, by mid-century, there could be an ice-free Arctic, the routes themselves would perhaps go further north, and ships might sail, amazingly enough, across the open Arctic Ocean between Europe and Asia as an example."
Some people say that would be like having a new Panama Canal, one that creates a shortcut across the top of the world. If you'd like to learn more about climate change in the Arctic, come to our web site at http://www.asjnews.org. Thanks this week go to Earthwatch Radio at the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Program. This is Arctic Science Journeys Radio, a production of the University of Alaska Sea Grant Program. I'm Doug Schneider.
Audio version (sidebar at top right)
Thanks to the following individuals for help preparing this script:
Lawson Brigham, Deputy Director
Arctic Science Journeys is a radio service highlighting science, culture, and the environment of the circumpolar north. Produced by the Alaska Sea Grant College Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The shortcut to our ASJ news home page is www.asjnews.org.
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