When Arctic Sea Ice Melts, Shippers Win and Walruses Lose

By Aline Reynolds | September 11, 2009 3:35 pm

walrus-seaice-webArctic sea ice melting, which scientists have linked to global warming, may be a boon for the shipping industry. As the sea ice continues to melt a shipping passage to Russia’s north is becoming more navigable, and now two German ships are close to completing the first trip from Asia to Europe via the Arctic shortcut. However, walruses that live in the Arctic could care less, since their sea ice habitat is rapidly disappearing.

Thousands of walruses are congregating on Alaska’s northwest coast, a sign that their Arctic sea ice environment has been altered by climate change. Chad Jay, a U.S. Geological Survey walrus researcher, said Wednesday that about 3,500 walruses were near Icy Cape on the Chukchi Sea, some 140 miles southwest of Barrow [AP]. Walruses wear themselves out diving for clams, and need to rest on the sea ice between meals. Since the sea ice is disappearing, they are turning to the shore for a break. Federal managers and researchers worry that so many walruses in one location could lead to a deadly stampede or could drive off prey. Highlighting the animals’ peril, the Obama administration is considering adding walruses to the endangered species list. 

The melt is good news for shippers looking to haul cargo between Asia and the West since it’s thousands of miles shorter than southern routes like the Suez Canal. The two German ships are on track to be the first to travel the entire route, called the northeast passage. The ships started their voyage in South Korea in late July and will begin the last leg of the trip this week, leaving a Siberian port for Rotterdam in the Netherlands carrying 3,500 tons of construction materials…. [The ships were] accompanied for most of the trip so far by one or two Russian nuclear icebreakers as a precaution, although they encountered only scattered small floes. At the most perilous leg of the journey, the passage around the northernmost tip of Siberia, the Vilkitsky Strait, ice covered about half the sea. [The New York Times].

But even during the relatively low-sea-ice summer season, the route may not be quite ready for full time use. Navigating the international bureaucracies—the route follows the Russian coastline and requires a permit and fee—may turn out to be the most difficult task.

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Image: flickr / flickkerphotos

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