By Robin Vroom
On 11 September 2015, the Arctic sea ice reached its fourth lowest minimum in satellite records. This follows the long-term downward trend in Arctic ice coverage, which causes the Northern Sea Route (NSR) to currently be ice-free. The forecast of possible ice-free summers in a matter of decades has launched –among other consequences- the use of the lucrative NSR for high volume commercial traffic (see Figure 1).
Consequently, the NSR will increase the economic and political importance of the Arctic, which has prompted many nations to reassess their commitments and strategic interests towards the region. China, for instance, has already shown political interest in the Arctic by signing a free-trade agreement with Iceland in April 2013. Most recently –together with Japan and South Korea– China gained an observer status in the Arctic Council, which is the leading institutional forum for cooperation in the region.
These consequences suggest the presence of a causal chain. Within the chain, there are self-reinforcing mechanisms. Rising global temperatures – initiated by a cumulative cause of increased emission levels - have caused the Arctic sea to warm, resulting in reduced ice cover. Furthermore, this decreasing sea ice triggers a positive feedback process as sea ice has a much higher albedo compared to the surrounding ocean. That is, sea ice reflects 50 to 70 percent of the incoming solar energy –keeping the surface cooler- whereas the surrounding ocean only reflects about six percent and absorbs the rest. Ergo, the absorbed heat causes more ice to melt.
Although one can identify a causal chain of events around the Arctic, this does not mean that the story has ended. There is high level of uncertainty in terms of what an increase in commercial shipping in the Arctic could lead to. Investigating these paths and outcomes is out of the scope of this web post, but a logical avenue for more research.