As Arctic Ice Vanishes, New Shipping Routes Open.

As global warming melts sea ice across the Arctic, shipping routes once thought impossible — including directly over the North Pole — may open up by midcentury. But high costs may keep the new routes from being used right away.

2045 to 2060
2015 to 2030
Predicted fastest shipping
routes through the Arctic
Ice-breaking ships
Pacific Ocean
Regular ships
Sea ice thickness
North American routes
North American routes
1m
0.5m
1m
0.5m
Yokohama, Japan
Atlantic Ocean
European routes
European routes
As global warming continues, by 2030 routes over the North Pole could open for ice-breaking cargo ships capable of operating in ice up to four feet thick.

By 2045 to 2060, the decline of Arctic sea ice under moderate warming could allow even ordinary cargo ships to journey directly over the North Pole.
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The amount of sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean has declined sharply each decade since the 1980s, according to measurements taken each September when the ice is at its minimum. Older, thicker ice is disappearing as well. Scientists say global warming is largely responsible for the changes. Parts of the Arctic are warming twice as fast as elsewhere.

3,302 cubic miles
1,480
1,000
737
1985 to 2000 average Arctic sea ice volume
Volume of the Grand Canyon
2015 to 2030
2045 to 2060
Note: Future Arctic sea ice volume numbers are derived under a moderate-emissions scenario.
The changing conditions offer an opening to shipping companies. The Arctic is potentially a faster, more direct route between Asia and ports in Europe and eastern North America.

Currently there is relatively little cargo shipped through the region. Although shipping will increase over the next decade, especially as Russia develops oil and gas fields in Siberia, total Arctic cargo tonnage is expected to remain only a small fraction of the amount carried along southern routes through the Suez and Panama canals.

But with “middle of the road” warming — higher than the 2015 Paris accord target but lower than the most extreme climate change forecasts — more Arctic shipping routes could open, both for ordinary ships and those that are built to move through thicker ice. Even direct over-the-pole routes would potentially be navigable, at least during some part of the summer-fall shipping season.