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Arctic shipping grows as sea ice declines


In the Arctic region, data shows that the annual maximum and minimum ice extents have become steadily smaller over the past 40 years, and the percentage of thick, multi-year ice has been shrinking considerably. Thinning and retreating ice has opened the Arctic Ocean to new Arctic shipping opportunities.

This map shows unique ship visits to Arctic waters between September 1, 2009, and December 31, 2016. Dots and lines represent the locations of ships as transmitted by shipboard beacons to satellite receivers. The denser and brighter the coloring of the dots, the greater the number of distinct ship transits reported in that region, with bright yellow and green representing areas with the highest traffic.

The map was created through a collaboration led by Paul Arthur Berkman, director of the science diplomacy center at Tufts University, and Greg Fiske, a geospatial analyst at the Woods Hole Research Center. More than 120 million data points were analyzed, compiled by SpaceQuest, whose microsatellites monitor the track Automatic Identification System (AIS) signals from ships.

The study found that the concentration of shipping activity moved 300 kilometers north and east—closer to the North Pole—over the 7-year span. Even small ships, such as fishing boats, ventured farther into Arctic waters.

The evolution of Arctic shipping 2009 to 2016. Woods Hole Research Center, January 18, 2019.

While open water is a boon for shipping, strict environmental measures need to be implemented to prevent pollution, oil spills and protect the Arctic’s fragile ecosystem, indigenous culture and local wildlife.

Read more about the recent rise in Arctic shipping at NASA’s Earth Laboratory

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