Opinion

Arctic Shipping: Stormy Seas or Smooth Sailing

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The dog days of summer slow down the pace of life for many of us, but it's the busy season in the Arctic. The Inuit people who inhabit the top of the globe in Alaska, Canada, Russia and Greenland are out on the land and ice, camping, hunting, fishing and visiting family. Meanwhile, annual supply ships visit Arctic communities, bringing next year's provisions before the ocean freezes again.

Climate change is altering these Arctic rhythms of life and culture.

Year-round sea ice is fast disappearing; this once permanent ice pack has thinned over two feet in the last four years. In the same period, 595,000 square miles of ice, an area about the size of Alaska, have vanished. The Arctic seems destined to resemble the Great Lakes—frozen in winter and completely open in summer. Scientists predict climate change will also bring more extreme weather and greater storm intensity to Arctic seas.

Heading into these increasingly ice-free and turbulent seas is an unprecedented wave of new ship traffic, including cruise ships; oil, gas and mining vessels; and commercial, research and fishing boats. Global shipping companies are mapping routes that will shave days off voyages that previously passed through the Panama Canal or around Cape Horn.

In 2007, Canada's Northwest Passage—connecting the Atlantic and Pacific through the islands just below the North Pole—opened for the first time. Last year, 62 ships used the passage, most for regional shipping but a few travelling the entire distance.

Because of these changes, Arctic nations are calling for tighter shipping regulations to protect human lives and fragile ecosystems. The Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment, a four-year study led by Canada, the United States and Finland for the eight-nation Arctic Council, contains important recommendations on how to prepare for the next 20 years, many of which echo our concerns. First, we need to prevent another Exxon Valdez disaster. The northern waters of Alaska's Prince William Sound still suffer from the 11 million gallons of oil spilled by the tanker in 1989. To prevent this from happening in even more challenging Arctic seas, the report calls for icebreakers with circumpolar spill response capabilities, far better ice navigation information, updated charts for newly open waters, a marine traffic monitoring system and mandatory environmental standards for all vessels.

We also need to take steps to avert the loss of human life from shipping accidents. The dramatic abandonment of the cruise ship Explorer in Antarctic waters in 2007 showed that unregulated shipping operations in polar waters are dangerous. All ships operating in the Arctic should be constructed to Polar Class standards and their crews trained to work in Arctic waters. Most important, Arctic countries must commit to developing search and rescue capability. Furthermore, the snow should stay white. Burning dirty fuel in ships produces smog-creating pollution and black carbon. Emissions from increased Arctic shipping could triple ozone pollution—subjecting Arctic communities to levels experienced in southern cities—and increase melting when the black carbon settles on snow and ice.

Scientists recently concluded that black carbon and smog cause almost 50 percent of warming in the Arctic. Yet new rules about black carbon emissions recently announced by Canada and the United States specifically exclude ships operating in the Arctic. And finally, the Arctic people and their environment must be protected.

Arctic communities need to be involved in developing shipping regulations. Key cultural and environmentally sensitive areas need to be identified and preserved. Marine highways should avoid important areas traditionally used by Inuit. And the fragile Arctic food web—from the algae production at the ice edge to marine mammals like narwhals, walrus, polar bears, and seals - must be protected.

For the sake of the Arctic and its people, we need to tightly regulate the growth of ship traffic to maximize the benefits and minimize the damage. The Arctic Council's shipping report is a good place to start.

The U.S. Senate also needs to quickly ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty, which is the bedrock of all Arctic cooperation. And then the United States and Canada should set an example by implementing shipping safety controls under their jurisdiction and collaborating with other Arctic countries on international safeguards and controls. This summer is the perfect time to start.

This op-ed also appeared in other publications, including the Bradenton Herald (FL), Idaho Statesman, Juneau Empire, Kansas City Star, Olympian (WA), San Luis Obispo Tribune, Tacoma News-Tribune and the Winnipeg Free Press.