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Monthly Sea Ice Extent, 2018

Median September sea ice extent, 1981-2010

Less sea ice means more ship traffic

In September 2018, when the area covered by Arctic sea ice shrank to its annual minimum and once again was far below the average of previous decades, hundreds of ships navigated the region. By mid-century if not sooner, Arctic summers are expected to be hot enough to melt most of the sea ice that forms in winter.

Last year the number of vessels crossing waters governed by the international Polar Code—a set of strict safety and environmental rules—was 879, nearly 60 percent higher than in 2012.

September 2018 ship traffic (Northern Sea Route)

Venta

Maersk

route

Bremerhaven

Asia

Busan

Suez Canal

(1,501 ships

in Sept. 2018)

Suez

Canal

route

Africa

Testing alternate routes

Last September the Danish Venta Maersk became the first container ship to complete the Northern Sea Route, traveling from East Asia to northern Europe. The journey was 10 days shorter than the southern route through the Suez Canal, but it required the help of a Russian icebreaker. Arctic shipping routes aren’t expected to be cost-effective until the region is more ice free.

Arctic ice, average

September extent

in millions of square miles

1979

2.72

2018

1.82

Sea ice extent fluctuates naturally, but the trend is unmistakable: The Arctic Ocean will be ice free in summer by mid-century.

Ice-free threshold

2036

proj.

0.28

2050

proj.

0.23

Arctic ice, average

September extent

in millions of square miles

1979

2.72

2018

1.82

Sea ice extent fluctuates naturally, but the trend is unmistakable: The Arctic Ocean will be ice free in summer by mid-century.

Ice-free threshold

2036

proj.

0.28

2050

proj.

0.23

More ships, more emissions

Most Arctic traffic occurs in summer, but new ice-breaking oil and gas tankers are able to operate year-round. These tankers made up just six percent of all ships entering Polar Code waters in 2018, but they burned so much fuel that they were responsible for 33 percent of carbon emissions.

CO2 emissions from ships in Polar Code area

(in thousands of metric tons per month)

Oil and gas tankers*

300

All other ships

200

100

0

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

2018

Total CO2 emissions from ships in Polar Code area

(in thousands of metric tons per month)

300

Oil and gas tankers*

All other ships

200

100

0

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

2018

As Arctic waters become reliably open,
more ships are venturing out on new routes


Russia’s Yamal Peninsula is thought to have the world’s largest natural gas reserves. Ten ice-breaking tankers are exporting Russian gas to Europe and Asia, with five more under construction.

Sea ice extent on

September 10, 2018

September 2018

oil and gas tanker traffic

Yamal Pen.

North Pole

Sea ice extent on

September 10, 2018

September 2018

oil and gastanker traffic

RUSSIA

Yamal Pen.

Mys Kamennyy

Magadan

Sabetta

Tiksi

Varandey

Arkhangelsk

FINLAND

Hammerfest

SVALBARD

(NORWAY)

SWEDEN

Longyearbyen

North Pole

Bering Strait

NORWAY

ARCTIC OCEAN

Nome

Red Dog

mine port

ALASKA

(U.S.)

Valdez

ICELAND

GREENLAND

Reykjavík

Nuuk

CANADA


A French icebreaker cruise ship is aiming for the North Pole by 2021, and dozens of ships intended for polar cruises are scheduled to launch by 2023.

Sea ice extent on

September 10, 2018

September 2018

cruise ship traffic

North Pole

Sea ice extent on

September 10, 2018

September 2018

cruise ship traffic

RUSSIA

St. Petersburg

Helsinki

SVALBARD

SWEDEN

(NORWAY)

North Pole

Bering Strait

Mongstad

ARCTIC OCEAN

ALASKA

(U.S.)

Anchorage

GREENLAND

Baffin

Skagway

Bay

Ilulissat

Nuuk

CANADA

Iqaluit


Bulk carriers transport materials from northern mines, such as zinc from Alaska’s Red Dog mine and iron ore from Canada’s Mary River Mine. Currently only accessible in summer, the ports serving these mines could be more active for longer periods as sea ice declines.

Sea ice extent on

September 10, 2018

September 2018

bulk carrier traffic

North Pole

Sea ice extent on

September 10, 2018

September 2018

bulk carrier traffic

RUSSIA

Magadan

Sabetta

Varandey

Arkhangelsk

St. Petersburg

Barents Sea

Murmansk

FINLAND

Hammerfest

SVALBARD

SWEDEN

(NORWAY)

Longyearbyen

North Pole

Oslo

Bering Strait

NORWAY

ARCTIC OCEAN

ALASKA

(U.S.)

Anchorage

ICELAND

GREENLAND

Reykjavík

Baffin Bay

Nuuk

CANADA

Churchill


A 2018 international agreement bans commercial fishing vessels in the central Arctic Ocean while scientists assess the region.

Sea ice extent on

September 10, 2018

September 2018

fishing vessel traffic

North Pole

Sea ice extent on

September 10, 2018

September 2018

fishing vessel traffic

RUSSIA

Magadan

Murmansk

FINLAND

Hammerfest

SWEDEN

North Pole

NORWAY

Bering Strait

Mongstad

ARCTIC OCEAN

Nome

ALASKA

(U.S.)

Seward

GREENLAND

Baffin

Bay

Ilulissat

Nuuk

CANADA


RILEY D. CHAMPINE AND RYAN MORRIS, NGM STAFF; SCOTT ELDER. SOURCES: PAME ARCTIC SHIP TRAFFIC DATA (ASTD); NSIDC; IHS MARKIT; SUEZ CANAL AUTHORITY