Global warming has cleared away the ice that plagued potential Arctic shipping routes, opening them up for speedier and more reliable trade. But without ice to act as a breakwater, huge swells are developing, making the shipping lanes dangerous all over again. In addition, the increasingly large waves serve to destroy the remnant ice, and pose a storm surge threat to low-lying coastal communities.
In recent years, the formerly ice-bound shipping lanes north of Russia have opened to more traffic, speeding up shipping times, reducing costs, and having the potential to facilitate the export of Russian oil to Asia. This had had many an investor and oligarch excited, but the joy may be short lived. The last couple of years have also seen growing swells and 16-foot waves in the Arctic Ocean and surrounding seas, where previously the waterways were relatively calm. This has been caused by dissipating ice cover, which has allowed swells to develop as the sea has opened up. An increase in wave activity also breaks down the remaining ice cover, fueling the problem and contributing to rising sea levels.
A recently released University of Washington study conducted in 2012 in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska’s north noted: “Open water distances are the controlling variable for wave heights in the Beaufort Sea (and likely the rest of the Arctic Ocean). Future scenarios for reduced seasonal sea ice cover in the Arctic suggest that larger waves are to be expected and that swells will be more common. Swells carry more energy and have longer attenuation scales within ice and thus will be more effective at breaking up the remaining ice. It is possible that the increased wave activity will be the feedback mechanism which drives the Arctic system toward an ice-free summer.”
The prospect of an ice-free summer for the hardy few who live in the remote north is a double-edged sword, as it will contribute to rising sea levels and the thawing of permafrost. The lack of buffering ice will also expose coastal communities to larger storm surges, increasing threats to lives, property and livelihoods and further eroding coastlines. In addition, if ships cannot ply their trade due to rough seas, then any financial gains from recent increases in shipping activity may well run dry before infrastructure being built to support them is even finished.