This paper was written as part of the 2010 Alaska Oceans Sciences Bowl high school competition. The conclusions in this report are solely those of the student authors.

The Effects of Global Warming on Shipping


Grant Magdanz
Heather Gallahorn
Catherine Greene
Eryn Schaeffer
Chelsea Hadley
Sunny Chan
Jared Miller
Gabe Schaeffer
Landon Eck

Muktuk Mafia

Kotzebue High School
PO Box 264r
Kotzebue, Alaska 99752


The Northwest Passage is opening as a result of global warming. Global warming is caused by the trapping of heat by greenhouse gases, the main contributor of which is carbon dioxide. An excess of these gases are released into the atmosphere as a result of the use of fossil fuels, and methane release from landfills and agriculture.

In the past ten years, there has been a dramatic decrease in ice from the Arctic polar ice cap. Scientists conclude that it is melting at a rate of 9% per decade. This has a great impact on the world, primarily populations in the Arctic. If the Northwest Passage opened up for commercial use, we would be at risk of an oil spill. Ships using the passage would face ice floes and difficult navigation. An oil spill in the Arctic would perhaps be even more devastating than the Exxon Valdez.

The risk of an oil spill is greatly increased with the variables of the Northwest Passage. With the remoteness, broken ice, and seasonality of the passage, it would be difficult to clean up an oil spill. Response times would be slow, broken ice would make navigation for non-arctic vessels challenging and clean up hard, and seasonality could slow the overall process.

In order for the Arctic to be kept in its pristine state, policies should be passed to regulate shipping through the passage. If there is a lack of policies or laws holding companies liable for damage and clean up there is certainly going to be an oil spill.

Northwest Passage

The Polar ice cap is the huge mass of ice on the Arctic Ocean. The cap gets smaller and larger as seasons change. Most of the world's sea ice forms in the Arctic Ocean and Southern Ocean. Most of the Antarctic sea ice is first year ice and gets up to one meter thick ( as opposed to Arctic sea ice in which 28% is multi-year ice and gets up to four meters thick. (

Dramatically increasing temperatures in the Arctic

The Ward Hunt Ice Shelf, the largest chunk of ice in the Arctic, did not begin cracking until 2000, and is now breaking up. The Arctic polar ice cap is growing smaller. Satellite images from NASA reveal that the ice cap is shrinking 9% per decade. If this rate persists, by the end of the century, Arctic summers could be ice-free. Ice that used to be frozen year-round is now melting, causing a negative effect on native people and the ecosystem surrounding them. For example, when animals change their migration patterns to adapt to the melting ice, it makes it harder for the native people to hunt them. Villages on the Alaskan coast will be wiped out due to rising sea levels. The melting ice cap does not only affect Alaska, it is a worldwide problem. The shrinking ice takes away the protective shield which usually reflects the sunlight and prevents the earth from getting hotter. The warming of the Arctic is already having an affect in Alaska. Because of the warmer weather, the spruce bark beetle is breeding faster. Between 1993 and 2003 the bugs chewed up 3.4 million acres of Alaskan forest. When glaciers and land-based ice sheets melt they affect the sea level, but floating sea ice does not. The rising sea levels will erode beaches, flood coasts, and contaminate freshwater supplies. Scientists predict that sea levels will rise as much as three feet by 2100. According to a 2001 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study, this increase would flood about 22,400 square miles of land along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States, including Louisiana, Texas, Florida, and North Carolina. A warmer Arctic will have a worldwide effect on food production and weather patterns. ( The earth's ice cover is melting in more places and at a higher rate than at any time since record keeping began. Global ice melting accelerated during the 1990s (warmest decade on record). ( Ships have already gone through the Northeast Passage. In late September two German freighters made their way through the Northeast Passage from Vladivostok, Russia to Rotterdam Harbor, Netherlands. The trip saved 10 days of travel and $300,000 per ship over the usual 11,000 mile trip through the Indian Ocean, the Suez Canal, and the Mediterranean to reach the North Atlantic. (, par. 1-2)

While burning fossil fuels—oil, coal and gas—to generate electricity and power our vehicles, we produce heat-trapping gases that cause global warming. ( Carbon dioxide is responsible for most warming. Other contributors include methane released from landfills and agriculture (especially from the digestive systems of grazing animals), nitrous oxide from fertilizers, and the loss of forests that would usually store CO2. Methane produces more than 20 times the warming of a molecule of CO2. Nitrous oxide is 300 times more powerful than CO2. Chlorofluorocarbons (degrade ozone layer) have heat-trapping potential thousands of times greater than CO2. Since carbon dioxide has higher concentrations in the atmosphere none of the other gases have as much of an effect. (

A direct result of global warming and the melting of the Polar ice cap, would be the opening of the fabled Northwest Passage to commercial use. As the polar ice cap melts, three major routes will be open. (Denny Kelso, pers. comm.) The first passage that is expected to open is the Northeast Passage. This travels along the Northern coast of Russia. Ships would navigate this passage with cargo going from Europe to Asia. The second passage goes almost directly across the North Pole. It is known as the Northern Sea Route and will most likely be the least used passage. The last, and one that most concerns our region, will be the Northwest Passage. This would decrease shipping times and prices from Europe and the Eastern seaboard to the West coast and Alaska.

The opening of this passage could potentially cause positive and negative effects on the environment and Northwest Alaska. The major concern we should have is the risk of an oil spill. Twenty years after the Exxon Valdez, people may be letting down their guard. There have been minor oil spills in other areas, but none as deadly as the Exxon Valdez. The Northwest Passage could be the most likely location to see the next devastating oil spill. However, a decrease in shipping prices could increase profit from Red Dog Mine, bringing more money into northwest Alaska. Also, with decreasing shipping times, we could see a minor reduction in global carbon emissions. (Denny Kelso, pers. comm.)

There are different policies or regulations we, as a country or world, should pass and enforce to reduce the chance of an oil or cargo spill. After the Exxon Valdez, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. (Denny Kelso, pers. comm.) This decreases the potential of an oil spill, helps the EPA respond if one occurs, and holds oil companies liable for damages.


(The following information comes from the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment 2009 Report.)
The idea of a Northwest Passage has been known since the 1400s. John Cabot was one of the first European explorers to attempt to find the Northwest passage. He set off in 1497 and returned, unsuccessful. Many more attempts followed, and explorers thought the Northwest Passage started somewhere in Hudson Bay. In 1778, Captain James Cook made an effort to locate it from the west side. He found several bays and inlets he thought could be the entrance, but each time, he came to a dead end and was forced to turn around. The British government sent out the Royal Navy during the 1800s to look for the entrance. In 1845, the ships Erubus and Terror, captained by Sir John Franklin, disappeared. The Royal Navy then spent the next decade looking for them but were unsuccessful. However, they mapped the entire Canadian Archipelago.

The very first successful navigation of the Northwest Passage came when the Norwegian, Roald Amundsen and his 47-ton ship plowed through it for three years, eventually coming out into the Pacific in 1906. The next voyage was completed in 1942, when Henry Larsen became the first person to transit it from West to East and in a single season, setting a speed record of just three months.

During the Cold War, the Northwest Passage was primarily thought of as either a military escape or security breach. During this time, the first armed ship, a Canadian vessel called the HMCS Labrador, traveled the passage. Three years later, this ship and three Coast Guard ice breakers broke through part of the western edge. Another Cold War related project was the construction of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) line. The DEW line was a 3000 mile long chain of radar systems and communication centers. It was put in place to detect Soviet bombers attempting to cross the border. Once the Cold War ended and slowed, the interest in the Northwest Passage changed to an economical standpoint. There were many Canadian missions to locate and harvest hydrocarbons from the continental shelf of the Beaufort Sea. Interest was sparked when oil was discovered in Prudhoe Bay in 1968. As we entered the new millennium, populations in the Arctic started to grow. This focused even more attention on the possibility of the Northwest Passage to be used as a shipping route. There are still many unpredictable factors that could potentially slow shipping in the passage. Ice floes, complex navigation, liability, and ship capability are only a few of the concerns. The majority of ships constructed before the Exxon Valdez were not Arctic suitable. This caused many problems with ships aiming to reach the opposite ocean. The American Military Sea Transportation Service undertook the job to construct ships that would be capable of navigating the ice. As the American interest grew, the Canadians' did as well.

The first commercial ship to successfully break through the passage was the SS Manhattan. To make this happen, three oil companies, a group of international marine experts, and four shipyards spent $28 million to upgrade the Manhattan. In the fall of 1969, the Manhattan set off with 126 passengers of assorted backgrounds aboard. The Manhattan successfully made the voyage carrying imitation cargo. During the same era, another ship, the M/V Arctic was being built at a shipyard in the Great Lakes. Due to the fact it had to pass through locks before it could reach the open ocean, there were width restrictions. To make up for the narrow hull of the ship, engineers designed it to have a large length to width ratio. After 30 years of use, and one renovation, the M/V Arctic is still sailing the ocean, providing scientists with useful information on vessel design and performance. (Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment 2009 Report)

Positive and Negative Effects

If the Northwest Passage opens, there is a very likely possibility that shipping companies will start using it as the primary route from areas in the northern Atlantic to the eastern side of Asia and vice versa. Living in northwest Alaska, there would be many effects on our region and life style, both environmentally and economically. If this route does open and is used, there could be another devastating oil spill much like the Exxon Valdez. If another oil spill occurs, it would affect the wildlife and people in the Arctic region for generations. Optimistically, if Kotzebue, Alaska became a shipping hub, it would open many local jobs and bring money into the community. Two locals, Jim Kulis (pers. comm.) and Matt Bergan (pers. comm.), are both skeptical that Kotzebue, or the Arctic in general, will see any positive effects from using the Northwest Passage.

However, we, the authors, believe there is potential for some positive effects. Our region is the home of Red Dog Mine, the world's largest open pit zinc and lead mine. While the mine operates in the winter, the ore is stored in large containment buildings. During the summer, all the ore is transported to other locations to be refined. If the Northwest Passage opened in the summer, the ore could be transported cheaper and faster to the refining centers, causing more revenue for the mine which is then passed on to northwest Alaska and its inhabitants. Not only could the Northwest Passage be used for shipping, it could also be used for enjoyment. For the few short months the passage would be open, there is a possibility of cruise ships running through it. If a cruise ship decided to make port in Kotzebue, this could skyrocket the profit of local businesses and open new business options during the summer months. The third realistic way it could benefit the people of the region is if Kotzebue, or another regional village, became a shipping hub. Out of the three shipping options, the following is the least likely to happen. Kotzebue is on a peninsula in Kotzebue Sound. Kotzebue would be out of the way of many ships transporting goods from coasts. From a shipping company's perspective, stopping in Kotzebue would increase time and prices. Another disadvantage Kotzebue has is the lack of adequate infrastructure. There is not a big or deep enough port for any large vessels to make dock. (Jim Kulis, pers. comm.)

The negative consequences of commercial shipping through the Northwest Passage are of more interest than the positive to the population of arctic Alaska. Many of the more commonly shipped goods are considered hazardous materials. With the lack of navigation knowledge in the passage, it is very likely a ship would either hit a multi-year iceberg or run aground in an unexplored area. This would cause cataclysmic effects to everything north of the Arctic Circle. The major concern for citizens of the area, would be an oil spill. Many people in northwest Alaska rely heavily on wildlife populations as food sources. If there was another oil spill even half as large as the Exxon Valdez, the process of cleaning it up would be bestowed on upcoming generations. Since the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, oil companies are required to have more serious clean up plans. However, this does not mean they are completely prepared to restore the ocean to a previous state. On top of it all, the majority of clean up plans do not take Arctic conditions into account. With the remoteness, broken ice, and weather conditions of the Arctic, it could dramatically increase response and clean up time. These companies claim to pay for any damages that they cause, but money will not buy back clean water, marine mammals, fish, or any other part of the environment. Mentioned previously, the shortened distance in shipping routes would reduce global carbon emissions. One of the major plans for Arctic oil spill clean up, would be to burn the majority of the oil in the water. If a large amount of oil was spilled, this could offset all the saving that was done with the reduced distance.


Even shippers may find some deterrents with the Northwest Passage. Not only would the lack of navigation knowledge and ice conditions play a role, national boundaries may as well. Much of the Northwest Passage winds through the Canadian Archipelago. This gives Canada power to control the use of the passage. If they were inclined to tax goods transported through the passage, it could raise shipping prices enough to defeat the purpose of the Northwest Passage. (Denny Kelso, pers. comm.)

If international policies are passed that hold shipping companies too reliable for accidents or taxes them for materials shipped, they may conclude the risk is greater than the benefit.

Policy Changes

In order for the Arctic ocean to stay as close to its natural state as possible, there should be international treaties and policy changes. In the early 90s, the United States passed its own set of precautions and laws. The main group of laws passed was the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

The Oil Pollution Act has multiple parts. The first part holds the companies liable for all damages and removal costs. The next parts say a company can place the damages on a third party, if the third party is solely reliable for the incident. The act dictates a price the oil companies will pay for the oil spilled. Tankers that hold over 3,000 tons of oil are responsible for $10 million or $1,200 per ton of oil, which ever is greater. States also have the ability to charge the companies more depending on the spill. One of the later sections of the act, encourages individuals and companies to report a spill as soon as it happens. The cost of failing to notify the appropriate government agency was increased from $10,000 to $250,000 for a single person and $500,000 for a company. In addition, they may be charged $25,000 dollars per day or $1,000 per barrel of oil if they do not notify the correct agency. ( There are other parts to the act as well. To decrease the chance of having an oil spill, Congress put into the act that by 2020 there should be changes in the type of tankers. For instance, by 2020 all arctic tankers will have double hulls. This prevents all the oil being spilled if the tanker runs aground. In areas where there is shallow water and a probability of grounding, it is required for tankers to be accompanied by tugs that are powerful enough to dislodge the taker off a sandbar or a reef. (Denny Kelso, pers. comm.)

Even though the Oil Pollution Act helps decrease the possibility of an oil spill, we should consider other policy changes that would decrease the possibility even further, especially in Arctic waters. The hardest part about enforcing these polices would be the international aspect. It would be hard for countries to force other countries to abide by these policies.

A basic strategy to prove that companies are reliable enough to be able to safely send ships through the passage, is to run another voyage like the SS Manhattan. Before a company is allowed to pass through, they have to send a ship through with either imitation cargo or oil. Also, there should be a fake oil spill where the company is timed in how long it takes for them to respond to the spill, and clean up a certain percentage of it.

Another way to ensure a spill will not happen is to only allow the state of the art, most advanced tankers to pass through. Hopefully, these would be advanced enough to navigate the passage without hassle. If we only let the tankers with double hulls and other modifications to keep the ice away it could dramatically decrease the chance of an oil spill. Another policy that should be put in place is one that is similar to the Oil Pollution Act. It should require that all tankers are accompanied by other ships of different purposes. They should have an ice breaker far ahead scouting all possible obstacles. They should also have a tug that could pull them through the ice, if need be. One of the worst case scenarios would be if there was a large oil spill in the later months of summer and the ocean froze the tanker into the ocean. Not only would there be another hazard, the oil would slowly leak out of the tanker all winter. Also, if only a few of the oil tanks onboard broke during the initial impact, others would likely break with the pressure of the freezing ice pushing in. Another way to bring up ideas is to have a large, world wide conference where the top scientists, environmentalists, and oil companies come together and collaborate about the passage and its issues.

In conclusion, global warming is a serious problem that is going to affect our lives for generations. One major effect it could have on the people of our region is as the Northwest Passage opens, there is a very likely possibility companies would use it for commercial shipping. If this happens, we would want to be careful and cautions about the risks. Oil spill is the risk people should be most concerned. Another devastating oil spill would hurt the environment for years to come. World powers, should declare and set policies that will be used to regulate and enforce the transportation of goods in the Northwest Passage.


Northwest Passage shipping routes

Figure 1. The different routes of the Northwest Passage (

one of the Northwest Passage shipping routes

Figure 2. A closer look at one of the Northwest Passage routes (

image of the polar ice cap

Figure 3. This shows the significant decrease in the polar ice cap. The pink-colored line shows the median ice edge (

graph depicting sea ice decline in the arctic

Figure 4. Shows the changes and the decline in the amount of sea ice in the Arctic. Nearly a 5.9% decline in sea ice per decade (