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Scientists from the University of California have announced that by 2050, ships will be able to travel across the north pole in summer months. Laurence C. Smith and Scott R. Stephenson wrote in the journal PNAS that this would slash costs of transporting goods between Europe and China, but opening the northern sea route will pose a host of new economic, environmental and political challenges.

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In the last seven years, summer ice levels north of Russia have shrunk so much that 46 ice-strengthened ships have successfully navigated the trans-Arctic passage – a previously unheard of feat, according to The Guardian. But by 2050, virtually any vessel will be able to make the same journey, the scientists concluded from seven different climate models. By the same time, moderately strengthened ships will be able to travel across the north pole.

“The prospect of common open water ships, which comprise the vast majority of the global fleet, entering the Arctic Ocean in late summer, and even its remote central basin by moderately ice-strengthened vessels heightens the urgency for a mandatory International Maritime Organisation regulatory framework to ensure adequate environmental protections, vessel safety standards, and search-and-rescue capability,” the scientists wrote in their paper.

Traveling across the northern sea route saves an average bunker 18 days and 580 tonnes of fuel between China and Norway, according to the paper, and shipowners claim that they save as much as €180,000-€300,000 on each voyage. Economics aside, opening up the great white north will have devastating consequences for one of the last remaining natural frontiers.

Via The Guardian