The annual maximum and minimum ice extents for the Arctic region have become steadily smaller over the past 40 years, and the percentage of thick, multi-year ice has been shrinking considerably. This thinning and retreating ice has opened the Arctic Ocean to new opportunities, but also serious environmental concerns. Plants, animals, plankton, and people are being forced to adapt to warmer summers and winters and to more open water. Atmospheric and ocean-circulation patterns are also changing, moving the jet streams and stirring up unusual weather in the high- and mid-latitudes.

The disappearing ice is also changing the shipping industry. In August 2017, a newly designed tanker with a hardened hull became the first merchant ship to sail across the Arctic Ocean without the aid of an icebreaker. The Christophe de Margerie traveled from Norway to South Korea in 19 days, nearly a week faster than the traditional trip through the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal.

Russia, China, Canada, the United States, and Iceland are leading a flotilla of nations preparing for more shipping activity in the Arctic. The Northwest Passage through Canada and the Northern Sea Route north of Russia and Siberia are both valued because they could significantly shorten ship transit times between Asia, Europe, and North America. But scientists have serious concerns about pollution, oil spills, and disturbances to marine life, among other possible impacts. Then there is the danger to the lives of sailors plying icy waters with poor navigation charts.

Whether open Arctic water is a boon for shipping, it remains bad news for the Arctic environment as we have known it. Claire Parkinson, a climate scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center says: “It’s a two-way street: the warming means less ice is going to form, and more ice is going to melt. But also, because there is less ice, less of the Sun’s radiation is reflected off of Earth, and this contributes to the warming.”

Article originally published by NASA Earth Observatory. The full article available on NASA Earth Observatory website.