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Divergent long-term trajectories of human access to the Arctic


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.

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


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The authors thank Y. Sheng, V. Chu and E. Lyons (UCLA); Lawson Brigham (University of Alaska, Fairbanks); J. Maslanik (University of Colorado, Boulder); A. Nelson (European Commission); M. Pratt (Durham University); P. Bourbonnais (University of Montreal); R. MacDonald (Transport Canada); C. Adler and C. Milne (Alaska Department of Transportation); E. Madsen (Tibbitt to Contwoyto Winter Road Joint Venture); and L. Purcka (GNWT Department of Transportation) for assistance in the production of this manuscript. This work was supported by the Academic Senate of the University of California, Los Angeles, the NASA Cryosphere Program, and the National Science Foundation Graduate Researchers Fellowship Program (DGE-0707424).

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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.

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Correspondence to Scott R. Stephenson.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Stephenson, S., Smith, L. & Agnew, J. Divergent long-term trajectories of human access to the Arctic. Nature Clim Change 1, 156–160 (2011).

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