Archive for September 12th, 2009

Of Northeast Passages and Melting Ice

So the Northeast Passage has finally been opened courtesy of climate change.

Two German commercial ships have made the previously impossible journey from Asia to Western Europe via the Arctic Northeast passage.  Well not strictly true.  It’s been done before but the point is that thanks to the ongoing melting Arctic, access to historically closed shipping routes will be much greater.  Potentially, they have a short cut.  Commercial ships will sail direct, as the crow flies so to speak, rather than having to take the costly and time-consuming long way round.

This has two significant advantages so we’re told.  Firstly, it will bring about economic growth.  I’m not sure which countries will benefit.  Russia I presume, maybe Canada.  Lord knows!  No doubt America will want to have some.  I guess we all have a vested interest one way or another.  Whatever, we can be be assured that there will be disputes and some ugly legal squabblings over who the passage actually belongs to but hey ho, that’s mankind for you. Anyway, it’s going to improve someone’s economy and boost trade.

The second significant advantage is that because vessels will no longer need to go all the way round fuel consumption will be drastically reduced resulting in far less co2 emissions.  This is a good thing, yes?  Well looking at the wider picture, the answer is probably no seeing as it’s all been made possible due to climate change melting the ice, a bittersweet paradox if ever there was one.  Sure, it’s easy to think, now that they’ve got their shorter passage, they might as well utilise it.  It makes sense because it will reduce CO2′s blah, blah. And of course, every country should be permitted to use it on a commercial basis, because again, the reduced CO2′s justifies it.  But the very fact that it can now be done is a huge indication of the mess we’re in and both advantages – growing economy and reduced nautical emissions – are likely to be short term because no matter how many short cuts through previously impassable terrain we may find, it’s hardly going to significantly reduce CO2 emissions. As it happens, there are wider implications of a busy, bustling Northeast passage but in any case, where we gain environmentally by reducing longer routes, we lose by the growing trade made possible by easier access.  And climate change, which I’ve said won’t be significantly slowed down, also has a sticky habit of detrimentally affecting economies.

They tell us it’s still largely inhospitable terrain and it will remain a dangerous passage because of drifting ice fields and low temperatures and suchlike.  And they only have a two-month window, ie, it will only be possible to use the passage for a few weeks in the year when the sun is at its hottest.  I suppose then that the potential busy open passage is slightly pie-in-the-sky but then, if there is to be power and wealth gained, no doubt these challenges will be conquered because it will be the will of the ruling elite.

My question is though, although, during the Summer weeks that it will eventually/possibly be used, as things progress, there will be some pretty intense nautical activity there.  I mean if it is opened up commercially – and liberally, some monstrously huge shipping vessels are going to be passing through and this has to have an impact on the temperature of the water in that it will surely compromise the natural reformation of the Winter ice hence adding to global warming.  And then there’s the increased activity consequently adding to environmental destruction, loss of habitat etc. and just basically exacerbating the whole problem.

And on it goes . . .

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