Increased Arctic Shipping Believed to Accelerate Climate Change

New study analyzes impact of maritime emissions on global warming

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A. Sue Weisler

James Winebrake

The development of new trade routes through the Arctic Ocean could increase global warming by more than 20 percent, according to a recently released report on the impact of maritime emissions on climate change.

The study, “Arctic Shipping Emissions Inventories and Future Scenarios,” published in the Journal of Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, is the first geospatial analysis of the impact of shipping on Arctic climate.

A multi-university team led by Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Delaware analyzed the potential repercussions of ship traffic through the Arctic as the polar ice cap melts. Arctic shipping is projected to reach 2 percent of global traffic by 2030 and 5 percent by 2050.

“The warming of the Arctic Ocean has been seen by some as a positive because it will open up faster shipping routes for international trade,” says James Winebrake, chair of the Department of Science, Technology and Society/Public Policy at RIT. “However, the release of harsh pollutants into an incredibly sensitive eco-system will only exacerbate the breakdown of the planet’s natural shielding and increase climate change.”

“One of the most potent ‘short-lived climate forcers’ is black carbon or soot because it absorbs sunlight—both directly from the sun and reflected from the surface of snow and ice,” says James Corbett, professor of marine policy at the University of Delaware. “Ships operating in or near the Arctic use advanced diesel engines that release significant amounts of black carbon and other climate forcers into the atmosphere, which will greatly increase our already steep warming curve.”

The analysis included the use of the Geospatial Intermodal Freight Transportation model to study individual shipping routes and calculate the increase in black carbon, carbon dioxide, methane and ozone caused by increased traffic through the Arctic. The team estimates enhanced Arctic transit could result in the additional emission of more than 4.5 billion tons of black carbon alone by 2030 with overall climate change emissions leading to a 20 percent increase in average temperature during the same time period.

“Through this analysis, we hope to shed new light on the impact of shipping on global warming and advance efforts to increase international standards for maritime emissions,” Winebrake adds. “Only through concerted global collaboration can we hope to address the environmental, political, social and economic impacts of climate change on all parts of the globe.”

The research team also included scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Transport Canada, GIS Consulting and the Canadian Coast Guard.