Changing Climate and Its Impact on Ship Routing

Mike O’Brien, AWT’s Senior Operations Manager
Wednesday, December 07, 2011

The warming planet and more predictable El Niño and La Niña cycles are presenting challenges and opportunities to shipping companies in ways that were not realized in the past. With each passing year we are seeing more transits along the Northern Sea Route (north of Russia) and through the NW Passage Route (through the Canadian Arctic). In addition to these climatic changes in the far northern latitudes, we are seeing short term pattern changes that are altering the face of how AWT supports shipping interests around the world.

 

  • Long Term Pattern Change
     

The Earth has been warming since the late 1820’s which marked the end of the "Little Ice Age". Temperatures prior to the 1820’s were much cooler allowing for glaciers to grow down through mountain valleys and along many of the colder northern latitude coastal areas. This period of colder weather was preceded by a number of warmer and cooler periods extending back more than ten thousand years to the end of the last great ice age. So in this current period of warming, we are experiencing a process that has taken place five other times in the last ten thousand years.

 

  • Short Term Pattern Changes
     

In addition to these long term pattern shifts that can last hundreds of years we have pattern shifts like El Niño and La Niña that can last a year or two. Also there are oscillations in the atmosphere that can shift every thirty years. With El Niño and La Niña we see impacts on world weather that are fairly dramatic. During El Niño years there is a well-documented increase in tropical cyclone activity worldwide and a general reduction in the intensity of the SW monsoon, among other things. Conversely, with La Niña there is a reduction in tropical cyclone activity along with some enhancement of the SW monsoon.

 

An oscillation that was identified in the late 1990’s deals with cooling and warming of the Pacific in much the same way El Niño and La Niña act. This oscillation is known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) and has been determined to switch between a cool phase and a warm phase every thirty years or so. We came out of the last cool phase of the PDO in the late 1970’s and it is thought that we are now moving back into a cool phase during the past year or two. This is important because the cool phase of the PDO can have a stabilizing or slight cooling influence on the planet and has properties that are in many ways similar to La Niña.

 

If we look at the port of Tianjin, China, we see that in January 2010 the Associated Press reported the port was facing the worst ice conditions in thirty years. Is it a coincidence that the last major freeze occurred at the end of the last cool phase of the PDO? Similar harsh ice issues were reported again in the winter of 2010 and 2011, but time will tell if there is a strong correlation between the Tianjin ice and the PDO.

 

  • How Does AWT Prepare for These Climatic Changes?

AWT has created its proprietary Climatological Ship Resistance data which provides output based on the short term climate pattern El Niño, La Niña or Neutral periods. It was noted above how far reaching these short term climate features can impact the world weather. AWT’s commitment to innovation drove us to develop this unique product to assist shipping companies with the challenges presented by these varying short term weather patterns.

 

AWT is working with more vessels each year to provide safe passage along the Northern Sea Route (NSR) passing north of Russia. This route has become more viable as the ice pack north of Russia has withdrawn over the last twenty to thirty years. The image below, dated 2007, shows that the ice has retreated considerably from the 1979-2000 median. It is this process that has opened the NSR for more frequent traffic that can save over three thousand miles on voyages between Rotterdam and North China compared to routes via the Suez Canal.

 
The Earth is always changing and the shipping industry is forced to adapt to these changes in a way that is responsible. AWT is partnering with shipping companies around the world dealing with our changing climate patterns while also assisting them safe passage, reducing fuel consumption and carbon emissions to help preserve our environment.
 

 

 

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