Melting sea ice in the Arctic means that the fabled Northwest Passage, the sea route over the top of the world linking the Atlantic and the Pacific that has trapped explorers and frustrated mariners for hundreds of years, is opening up. Now a new study using 120 million data points tracking ship traffic there over seven years shows exactly how much and how fast the area is changing. Indeed, it found that the center of ship activity in the Arctic moved 186 miles closer to the North Pole from 2009 to 2016.
Researchers from Tufts University and the Woods Hole Research Center who conducted the study were surprised to find more small ships, including many fishing boats, in the far reaches of the Arctic. And the ships were moving farther north each year, as more of the ice cap melted due to global warming. They mapped boats’ routes in the Arctic using AIS signals and data compiled by SpaceQuest, which designs microsatellites, to show changes over the seven-year-period.
Commercial ships are starting to transit the area, one of the most treacherous in the world. Last August, the first merchant ship sailed across the Arctic without any help from an icebreaker in 19 days, saving a full week’s time from the traditional route. And this February, in the dead of winter, an unescorted tanker sailed through the Arctic from South Korea to Sabetta in northern Russia, also another first.
See a NASA satellite map of Arctic shipping traffic and read more here: