No matter which explanation you spin, the Earth’s ice caps are showing a sustained reduction in ice. In the case of the Arctic, this means the ice bridging together the Canadian archipelago is fading away and opening up new waterways that could have a massive impact on the global economy.
Imagine having shipping costs slashed in half, drastically dropping the prices on any good that’s shipped on the ocean, which is almost all of the goods. Now imagine that this reduction in cost comes from a reduction in distance traveled, meaning a reduction in the environmental impact of the global shipping trade. Sounds nice, doesn’t it! And it may soon be possible with the rate at which the Arctic ice cap is melting (which doesn’t sound so nice).
But, this new reality is not without some extremely serious downsides.
Eight nations claim territory in the arctic circle, with the majority of them only stretching about a three hour flight from each other. The thing is, nothing is really up there to visit; at least for now.
The quest for a northwest passage through the Canadian archipelago was first successful back in 1906, when a three year journey through waters only three feet deep at times finally made it from the Atlantic ocean all the way to the Pacific. It wasn’t until 2013 when the first commercial shipping boat made a successful international journey, cutting from Canada to Finland.
It was that shortened 2013 trip that ended up saving the cargo ship almost $80,000 in fuel, which also means it was drastically more environmentally friendly. This opens up some serious potential for a northwest passage between the Atlantic and Pacific, cutting shipping times and costs, and bringing Canada a new, booming northern economy.
The only issue is that Canada may not want to deal with the traffic. Unlike other parts of the world, where waterways that cut through multiple countries are claimed as international waterways, the Canadian archipelago is all Canada, for now. Now that the arctic frequently melts away enough in summer season for ships to pass, there is a debate brewing over whether or not a northwest passage should become an international waterway.
The northwest passage lacks a few things that would be needed for an international waterway designation. The primary factor is a lack of precedence. Canada could claim that the lack of a history of usefulness up there means it’s all Canada’s to claim. The entire region also lacks the infrastructure necessary to operate search and rescue missions, which would require billions of dollars of investment in a rather obscure and uninhabited area, with just one country footing the bill.
If Canada keeps its claim over the passageway, it could charge fees to support the infrastructure, but open itself to the temptation of controlling international trade by policing its new boating highway, which could cause some problems.
Whatever ends up happening in our future, climate scientists predict that environmental conditions in the Arctic are going to get real bad by 2050, and really really bad by 2100, possibly leading to hundreds of thousands of direct and indirect deaths annually, and billions of dollars in GDP lost in countries around the world.
So don’t let the promise of easier trade blind you from the very real implication of losing the Arctic ice sheet. Think of the islanders and Floridians, will you!