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Trucks lose, ships win in warmer Arctic
by Staff Writers
Paris (AFP) May 29, 2011

Global warming will have a devastating effect on roads in the Arctic but open up tantalising routes for shipping, according to a study published on Sunday in the specialist journal Nature Climate Change.

"As sea ice continues to melt, accessibility by sea will increase, but the viability of an important network of roads that depend on freezing temperatures is threatened by a warming climate," said Scott Stephenson of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

Previous research has already pinpointed the Arctic as one of the world's most climate-sensitive areas.

Four consecutive years of shrinking summer sea ice have fired talk of new, cost-saving ocean links between Europe and Asia and prospects of a scramble to exploit the region's wealth of oil, gas and precious minerals.

The new study is the first to look in detail at the implications of this for transporters.

Stephenson's team devised a computer model about accessibility to the Arctic and combined it with climate simulations used by the US National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).

The simulations are based on expected temperature increases of 2.0-3.4 degrees Celsius (3.6-6.2 degrees Fahrenheit) overall in the Arctic by 2050, with an even greater rise in winter of 4-6 C (7.2-10.8 F).

The big casualty will be temporary roads that are built on ice, for they will become unstable or swampy as the mercury rises.

These routes play a vital part in providing access to remote areas in the eight countries -- Canada, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States -- that have land within the Arctic Circle.

By mid-century, between 11 percent and 82 percent of areas that are currently accessible by roads in these countries will be out of reach, says the study.

In winter, Russia will lose road access to 618,000 square kilometres (239,000 square miles), a total bigger than the area of France, while Canada would lose access to 400,000 sq. kms (154,000 sq. miles), which is greater than the area of Germany.

The fall in both cases is around 13 percent over Arctic areas that are road-accessible today.

Giving a comparison, the researchers said a road trip from Yellowknife, capital of Canada's Northwest Territories, to the distant community of Bathurst Inlet that takes 3.8 days today would need 6.5 days by mid-century.

Warming's winner, though, would be sea traffic.

So-called Type A vessels -- commercial ships which have limited ice-breaking capability -- would be able to use three of the four major shipping routes from July to September.

For instance, ships could sail from Rotterdam Europe directly to Alaska; from Amderma in northwestern Russia to the Russian Far East port of Provideniya; and from the Canadian port of Churchill to Murmansk in Russia.

"This will be good news for global shipping interests, who stand to reap savings by moving cargo through these passages rather than through the Panama Canal, Suez Canal or the Strait of Malacca," Stephenson was quoted in a UCLA press release as saying.

The exception would be the fabled Northwest Passage, which is not expected to become fully passable for the entire summer by that date.


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