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The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Healy in Arctic sea ice north of Utqiaġvik, Alaska, in 2018

NyxoLyno Cangemi/U.S. Coast Guard

Vanishing Arctic ice will open the way for more science voyages, analysis suggests

Early this month, the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy embarked on a journey through the Arctic seas off of the coast of Alaska, helping researchers conduct studies of Arctic algae blooms, atmospheric chemistry, birds, and marine mammals. And more research vessels could soon be plying the same frigid sea lanes, according to a new report. It suggests that science voyages into the Arctic will become more common—along with other types of shipping—as sea ice in the region decreases because of climate change, and nations such as China launch new ice-capable ships.

But obtaining funding and ship time to conduct studies of one of Earth’s fastest-changing regions could still be a challenge, researchers say.

The draft study, prepared by the Committee on the Maritime Transportation Systems (CMTS) in Washington, D.C., examines possible scenarios for maritime activity, out to 2030, in the Arctic waters controlled by the United States. It concludes that vessel activity in U.S. Arctic waters increased by 128% between 2008 and 2018, rising from just 120 vessels in 2008 to a peak of 300 vessels in 2015. (There has been a decline in vessel traffic in more recent years because Royal Dutch Shell, an oil and gas company headquartered in the Netherlands, pulled out of efforts to drill in the area.)

Cargo ships accounted for the most traffic, making 31% of total trips from 2015 to 2017. Tow and tug boats accounted for about one-fifth of traffic over the same period. Trips by research vessels have been gradually rising since 2008, the report concludes and accounted for 4.8% of total traffic from 2015 to 2017.

The report examines four scenarios for vessel activity growth through 2030. The “most plausible” scenario, the authors say, is that vessel activity in the region will rise at an annual rate of 2.3%, with 377 ships sailing into U.S. Arctic waters by 2030.

One trend that will boost ship traffic, the report says, is the expansion of the summer shipping season, when sea ice is at its lowest extent. That season, which the report defines as the period when more than 10 vessels are in Arctic waters, has been lengthening by about 10 days per year in recent years. It lasted 180 days in 2018, up from 159 days in 2016.

Arctic shipping could also get a boost from new additions to the world’s fleet of ships capable of handling icy Arctic seas. The U.S. Coast Guard now maintains two icebreakers, the aging Polar Star, which mostly operates in the Antarctic, and the Healy, which mostly operates in the Arctic. But the Coast Guard is now seeking funding to add as many as six “polar security cutters” in coming years, with the design and construction of one already underway.

Other nations, meanwhile, are also expanding polar fleets. China launched one icebreaker, the Xue Long 2, last year, and Russia has said it wants to launch three new nuclear-powered icebreakers in the early 2020s.

The expected opening of the Arctic to greater ship traffic is also turning the heads of scientists, who are increasingly interested in the region’s role in global marine and atmospheric systems. “The more research we get up there, the more we’ll understand and the more rapidly we’ll understand,” says Larry Mayer, a marine geophysicist at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. At the same time, he says, it’s ironic that planetary warming is clearing the path for new seaborne expeditions. “The ultimate disadvantage is the circumstances, that have created [a] situation which I don’t think is healthy for the earth or healthy for the Arctic.”

“The overall picture is mixed,” says Julie Brigham-Grette, a geologist at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. “We’re opening up an entire environment that has otherwise been cut off from human influence.”

Doing science in the Arctic, however, is notoriously expensive. It costs about eight times more to do studies in the Arctic than at lower latitudes, according to an analysis published in Arctic Science in 2018. And Brigham-Grette notes that global funding for Arctic research is relatively limited. The field receives less than less than 3% of the funds spent on science by nations with an interest in the Arctic, according to an article published in Polar Research in 2018.

CMTS expects to post its final report on Arctic shipping on its website in late September.