As the Arctic sea ice recedes and climate change models predict further melting, some opportunistic nations are eyeing potential new trans-Arctic shipping routes. Linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans could offer major new trading opportunities.

Until recently, we have not been able to predict where these new routes are likely to be. But now, analysing multiple climate models for sea ice under two climate change scenarios, some pretty accurate route maps have been plotted showing how the Arctic seascape could change over the next five decades. This represents the findings of Scott R. Stephenson’s and Laurence Smith’s most recent research (Smith is a Member of the Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Arctic, which I have the pleasure of chairing).

By the middle of the century, boats could be navigating west and east of the North Pole – even across it during the Arctic’s peak navigation month of September. Traditionally, vessels coming up from Europe and North America have had to take the Northern Sea Route past the coast of Russia (and therefore within its exclusive economic zone, allowing it to charge international vessels escort fees). This is likely to remain the optimal route in the near future. The Northwest Passage, between Baffin Island and Greenland, has been historically inaccessible.

But the melting ice will open up new routes for open water vessels (not adapted for ice-breaking) that are closer to the pole and further away from the Russian coast, cutting distances and travel times. The number of possible journeys will also increase. The Far East could become the Near East.

Ice-breaker vessels will also be able to plough through the central Arctic Ocean and the North West Passage, and by the middle of the century, even open water vessels from North America will be able to navigate the far more convenient Northwest Passage, cutting journey distances by nearly a third during the peak travel season.

But what are the economic, environmental and governance implications of all this? Plenty of practical problems arise. Simply opening up more routes and cutting distances does not mean these journeys are going to be much less hazardous or difficult, and will still probably incur high insurance costs even if they do save on some escort fees. A new concentration of vessels in this sparsely inhabited wilderness also presents a potential pollution threat to the delicate ecosystem while its remoteness is a challenge for search and rescue missions.

Will there need to be new Arctic vessel safety standards? Will the US get around to ratifying the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, especially important as the Northwest Passage opens up?

It is clear that this research heightens the need for a mandatory International Maritime Organization regulatory framework to codify all these issues and resolve once and for all the region’s existing disputed sovereignty issues, and the associated mineral exploitation rights.

While new “supra-polar” shipping lanes though the Arctic may seem a little way off, we need to confront the issues now and start planning for them. After all, it can take that long to reach international agreement on far more trivial matters. We cannot leave the fate of the one of the world’s last unclaimed wildernesses to mere chance and intra-national competition.

Author: Per-Ola Karlsson is a Senior Vice President with Booz & Company and is the Chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Arctic.

 Image: The Coastal Guard breaks ice during an expedition in the Arctic REUTERS/Patrick Kelley