Divergent long-term trajectories of human access to the Arctic

Journal name:
Nature Climate Change
Volume:
1,
Pages:
156–160
Year published:
DOI:
doi:10.1038/nclimate1120
Received
Accepted
Published online

Understanding climate change impacts on transportation systemsis particularly critical in northern latitudes, where subzero temperatures restrict shipping, but enable passage of ground vehicles over frozen soil and water surfaces. Although the major transport challenges related to climate warming are understood, so far there have been no quantitative projections of Arctic transport system change. Here we present a new modelling framework to quantify changing access to oceans and landscapes northward of 40°N by mid-century. The analysis integrates climate and sea-ice model scenarios1, 2 with topography, hydrography, land cover, transportation infrastructure and human settlements. Declining sea-ice concentration and thickness suggest faster travel and improved access to existing (+5 to +28%) and theoretical (+11 to +37%) offshore exclusive economic zones of Canada, Greenland, Russia and the US. The Northern Sea Route, Arctic Bridge and North Pole routes are projected to become fully accessible from July–September, averaging ~11, 15 and 16 days to traverse, respectively, whereas the Northwest Passage will not. All eight Arctic states are projected to suffer steep declines (−11 to −82%) in accessibility inland, driven by lost potential for winter road construction caused by milder winters and deeper snow accumulation.

At a glance

Figures

  1. Change in maritime and land-based transportation accessibility by mid-century, baseline (2000-2014) minus mid-century (2045-2059).
    Figure 1: Change in maritime and land-based transportation accessibility by mid-century, baseline (2000–2014) minus mid-century (2045–2059).

    Green indicates newly formed maritime access to Type A (light icebreaker) vessels. Red indicates lost winter road potential for 2,000kg ground vehicles. White indicates areas still inaccessible to Type A vessels by mid-century.

  2. November travel time to nearest settlement using multi-mode transportation (Type A shipping, winter road, permanent road, rail, walking) for baseline (2000-2014, left) and mid-century (2045-2059, right).
    Figure 2: November travel time to nearest settlement using multi-mode transportation (Type A shipping, winter road, permanent road, rail, walking) for baseline (2000–2014, left) and mid-century (2045–2059, right).

    To isolate climate change impacts, all human settlements and permanent transportation infrastructure are assumed unchanging between the two time periods. By mid-century, dark tones in continental interiors reflect longer TTNS owing to reduced winter road potential. In oceans, lighter tones reflect shorter shipping TTNS owing to reduced sea ice. Areas still inaccessible by mid-century are shown in black. For corresponding map pairs for all other 11 months see Supplementary Fig. S1.

  3. Total geographic areas (million km2) where travel time to nearest settlement increases (slower access, dashed line) or decreases (faster access, solid line) by mid-century.
    Figure 3: Total geographic areas (million km2) where travel time to nearest settlement increases (slower access, dashed line) or decreases (faster access, solid line) by mid-century.

    Large geographic areas within inland holdings of the eight Arctic states (left) will be slower to access, whereas all maritime EEZs plus high seas of the central Arctic Ocean (right) will be faster to access.

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Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Geography, University of California, Los Angeles, California 90095, USA

    • Scott R. Stephenson,
    • Laurence C. Smith &
    • John A. Agnew
  2. Department of Earth & Space Sciences, University of California, Los Angeles, California 90095, USA

    • Laurence C. Smith

Contributions

S.R.S. designed the methodology, performed analyses, and led the writing. L.C.S. designed the methodology, assisted with data interpretation and contributed to writing. J.A.A. assisted with background research on accessibility theory and conducted a critical review of the manuscript.

Competing financial interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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