[FAQ] Climate Change Can Affect Shipping?

Credit: Julius Silver/Pexels

The effects of global climate change are broad and impact everyone, as well as Earth’s natural systems. Much has been written about the major impacts of climate change. Effects such as rising global surface temperatures, higher sea levels, longer and more intense heat waves, melting glaciers and ice sheets, polar sea ice loss, extreme weather and climate events, and impacts on animal habitats are well-documented and in the news regularly. This recent NASA Climate feature series published on their website examines some of the lesser-known, and often surprising, ways Earth’s changing climate is affecting our world. 

Human Travel Vs Climate Impact 

Before the Industrial Revolution, human travel had little impact on Earth’s climate. Today, burning fossil fuels to power ships, cars, trucks, and planes, transportation generates about a fourth of global carbon dioxide emissions, second only to the electric power sector. Climate change is affecting transportation in major ways, such as the ongoing shift to zero-emissions automobiles. But some of the impacts of climate on sea transportation are less obvious. Here are a few. 

Change safer and dangerous? 

Our changing atmosphere may make future Arctic Travel Gets Both Safer and More Dangerous One of the most significant changes to the planet is the continuing decline of Arctic sea ice. Over the past 40 years, the amount of ice cover at both the annual maximum and minimum has shrunk, and the percentage of thick ice that survives from year to year has also dropped. As reported in 2018, this has opened the Arctic to new commerce opportunities, but also to serious environmental concerns. At the centre of both lies the shipping industry. Inuit and other indigenous peoples of the Arctic travel the sea ice by snow machine and by dog team. 

The positive side 

On the positive side, reduced sea ice cover is increasingly allowing ships to sail across the Arctic Ocean without support from icebreaker ships. This can significantly shorten travel times between Asia, Europe, and North America. As a result, many nations are preparing for more Arctic shipping. 

The negative side 

There are also negatives. Scientists and environmentalists worry more shipping activity will increase pollution and oil spills and disturb marine life. And ships are still encountering plenty of ice as they sail closer to the North Pole and in waters that are not well charted. Increased exploration and tourism also mean search-and-rescue operations become more challenging for the U.S. and Canadian coast guards. Finally, some traditional travel routes over the sea ice (used by snowmobiles, trucks, and other vehicles) could become unsafe as the ice thins.

Water level erratic impacts 

Climate change is expected to increase the frequency and/or intensity of droughts and floods, so the impacts on water levels in rivers and reservoirs may become more severe and erratic. The impacts on shipping cargo by boat could be significant. Water levels can drop such that rivers can become too shallow to navigate, and some ships may have to carry less cargo to safely navigate a river. In the United States, cargo transport along the Mississippi River has been impacted in recent years. For example, low water in 2012 closed an 11-mile stretch of the Mississippi River near Memphis. Such closures have a big economic impact along the river.

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Source: NASA


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