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Saving Fuel But Melting Ice Faster

Sailing from the Atlantic to the Orient across the roof of the world has been the dream of Arctic explorers and world traders for centuries. It saves fuel, too, so what's not to like? Well ...
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For centuries people in the West believed, as the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz articulated in the 17th century, "Everything exquisite and admirable comes from the East Indies. Learned people have remarked that in the whole world there is no commerce comparable to that of China." Europeans therefore took to the seas to get there once the land route to the East known as the Silk Road became difficult to access in the 1400s.

The restriction on trade to the east motivated Columbus to sail west in search of a new route. Once people realized that he had not reached the East, other mariners looked for new ways to the east. Vasco da Gama sailed around Africa to India and the East Indies. Magellan found a passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific in southern South America leading to the Orient.

Would-be competitors sought shorter paths. Some searched for the fabled "Northwest Passage" that starts in present day Arctic Canada and ends in the Bering Straits, which Alaska and Russia currently face. Others tried the "Northeast Passage route," skirting the Arctic seas where Norway sits and then crossing the entire northern Russian coast.

But ice barred the way. The would-be conquerors either fled from or fell to the icebergs, fields and floes. In 1845, for example, Sir John Franklin, whose tale continues to fascinate, tried to go west: "With a hundred seamen he sailed away/To the frozen ocean in the month of May/To seek a passage around the pole/Through cruel hardships they vainly strove/ Their ships on mountains of ice were drove/The fate of Franklin [and his men] no man may ever know." Three hundred years earlier, Hugh Willoughby came a cropper trying to go east and died having gotten no further than the vicinity of Murmansk.

Eventually explorers did successfully sail through both passages. They had to sit out the winter, though, stuck in ice before achieving their goal, something a commercial venture would never do.

Satellite pictures now show that global warming has melted the treacherous ice barrier into navigable sea water. Trade with China and the rest of Asia once again calls. Germany's Beluga Shipping will send the first commercial ship, the Beluga Fraternity, through the Northeast Passage — they're calling it the "northern sea route" — from Vladivostok to Rotterdam before the end of the summer. If the route proves routinely feasible, sailing through the passage from Bremen in northern Germany to Shanghai will shave more than 3,000 nautical miles off a similar journey on today's shipping lanes.

Shippers will see great savings in time spent sailing and money spent on fuel. But the maiden voyage does not augur good news for the planet.

While it's been documented that ships are big generators of greenhouse gases as it is, half of a cargo ship's particulate emissions are soot — and soot (aka black carbon) emitted by ships sailing in the polar region will further blacken the remaining ice. The dark ice in turn will lose more of its former solar reflectivity, absorbing sunlight and emitting solar heat instead. The Earth will then warm even faster.

Six years ago, NASA estimated black soot might be responsible for as much as a quarter of observed global warming over the past century (and last year, one study suggested even double that). Noting that "soot may be a more all-around bad actor than has been appreciated," NASA's controversial James Hansen wrote that as the ice melts soot builds up and darkens the field more, causing it to melt even faster. Plus, wet snow is darker than dry snow, adding additional "positive feedback."

"Reducing Arctic [black carbon] concentrations sooner rather than later is the most efficient way to mitigate Arctic warming that we know of, " the University of California, Irvine's Mark G. Flanner and three co-authors wrote in a 2007 paper in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

So that fuel savings to obtain the "exquisitely" cheap modern wares of the Orient may be a very costly in the long run.

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