"The Northern Sea Route cuts the distance from northern Europe to northeast Asia and northwest North America by up to 50%, compared to the southern routes through Suez or the Panama Canal," said Vyacheslav Khon from the Russian Academy of Sciences and Kiel University in Germany. "The on-going Arctic sea-ice decline means the route could become a potential alternative for intercontinental navigation between Atlantic and Pacific regions in forthcoming decades."

End-to-end navigation of the Northern Sea Route has only become possible over the last two decades; from 1980–1989 it required icebreaker support.

Khon and colleagues projected daily sea-ice concentrations using 25 climate models from the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5 (CMIP5) under the RCP4.5 and RCP8.5 scenarios. If a grid cell had a sea-ice concentration of less than 15%, the team considered it to be open water and so navigable by light ice-class ships. They designated the Northern Sea Route as navigable on a particular day when the length of open water exceeded 80–90% of the whole length of the route.

"The opening of the Northern Sea Route may significantly reduce expenses for icebreaker escort and ice reinforcement for cargo ships, shorten shipping time, diminish risks and increase reliability of the transit traffic," said Khon. "This may raise a commercial attraction of the Northern Sea Route compared to the southern marine routes – the Suez or Panama canals."

Sea ice may disappear from the Arctic during the summer as early as the first half of this century, according to Khon, although the date is dependent on internal and multi-decadal variability. The reduced ice cover may cause problems for shipping by enabling larger waves to build up. The Arctic could also see stronger winds and more coastal erosion, again both potentially problematic for ships.

Previously Khon and colleagues had assessed the opening of the route using models from CMIP3 but were not able to examine ice concentrations on a daily basis. Their new method calculates the start and end dates of the navigation season.

"We estimate that by the end of century the Northern Sea Route transit window will be within 4 and 6.5 months per year depending on greenhouse-gas concentrations in the atmosphere," said Khon, who believes that this increasing accessibility opens new perspectives for the Russian and world economies.

"The Arctic is a region of exceptional importance for the Russian economy," he added. "At present, more than 10% of Russia's GDP and 20% of its export volume is produced in this region. Extraction of the natural resources is directly related to the development of marine navigation along the Northern Sea Route."

Opening up of the Northern Sea Route could, says Khon, promote more intensive oil and gas exploitation on the Arctic shelf; provide transport to polar regions with extremely difficult access; offer a commercial transnational route for year-round marine navigation as an alternative to the Suez or Panama Canal routes; and promote the popularity of cruise tourism.

Now the team, who reported the findings in Environmental Research Letters (ERL), will focus on investigating the individual impact of different meteorological factors on sea-ice conditions and marine navigation along the Northern Sea Route.

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