Shipping & Oil May Be Speeding Up Arctic Sea Ice Thaw

Published Nov 19, 2012 3:22 PM by The Maritime Executive

Pollution in the Arctic from shipping and offshore activities – which have recently increased due to global warming and sea ice thawing – may speed up that thaw.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) said there was a vital need to calculate risks of local pollutants in the Arctic. For example, soot blackens ice, making it absorb more of the sun's heat and virtually accelerating a melt.

Companies who operate in the area, like Exxon, Statoil and Shell, claim they are using the greenest form of technology. However, dangers of even small amounts of pollution on the Arctic Ocean have not been fully assessed – like the burning of gas or fuels used by vessels in the Arctic.

The extent of sea ice on the Arctic Ocean has shrunk this summer to the smallest since satellite records began in the 1970s, eclipsing a 2007 low. The melt is part of a long-term retreat blamed by a U.N. panel on man-made global warming, caused by use of fossil fuels, according to the Chicago Tribune.

A report from the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP) stated that regulation of black carbon production from all sources, especially those resulting from local activities in the Arctic, is required at all measures.

Over 400 oil and gas fields within the Arctic region were established by 2007; most of the untapped oil and gas is now projected to be offshore.

Soot is an additional problem for planners, adding to risks such as of an oil blowout or a shipwreck, reports Reuters. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is trying to work out a new "Polar Code" that may constrict everything from emissions to hull standards. For shipping, use of the Arctic route may be less damaging overall in terms of global warming since it is a shortcut between some Atlantic and Pacific ports. That means ships burn much less fuel during the journey.

Experts are calculating the effects of the Arctic shipping route versus using the Suez Canal. In 2009, it cut around 4,000 nautical miles for one ship’s voyage. One study directed that increased use of the Arctic route might limit carbon dioxide emissions for global shipping by 2.9 million tons a year by 2050.

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