Patricia Davis was listening to a lecture aboard an Alaska-bound cruise ship last September when the Port of Seattle commissioner heard something that immediately changed the way...

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Patricia Davis was listening to a lecture aboard an Alaska-bound cruise ship last September when the Port of Seattle commissioner heard something that immediately changed the way she thought about the frigid expanse of water at the top of the world:

An international consortium of scientists has concluded that the polar ice cap is melting at such an alarming rate that cargo ships could begin using the Arctic Ocean as a shortcut between Asia, Europe and the East Coast within decades.

“It was astonishing,” she said. “Could we [the Port of Seattle] be bypassed?”

Chalk up another worry for the Port, which already has competition enough from Tacoma and Vancouver, B.C., for its $48 million-a-year cargo and cruise business. But it turns out Davis is far from the only one wondering how an ice-free Arctic might change the world’s economic climate.

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Once a pipe dream, steaming across the pole is now getting serious attention.

Arctic experts from 11 countries gathered at England’s Cambridge University in October to begin hashing through a thicket of environmental, political, technical and economic questions raised by the increasing presence of ships in what was once mainly the polar bear’s domain.

While no one was eager to see the ice cap melt, there was a sense that governments and regulatory bodies need to prepare for the inevitable commercial exploitation if it does.

“There is no question there will be greater use of the Arctic Ocean,” said Lawson Brigham, deputy director of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. “Ten or 20 years out, we will see a lot more ships in the Arctic doing a lot more stuff.”

In the near future that means more ships moving gas, oil and minerals from the Arctic, but not necessarily across it. Fishing fleets may edge farther north. And cruise ships may become a more common sight.

But farther out, if the sea ice continues to recede, viable trans-Arctic shipping routes could emerge — especially along Russia’s vast northern coast. And that could have profound effects from Panama to Seattle and beyond.

Disappearing ice

Ship-crushing sheets of ice covering the Arctic Ocean have frustrated explorers and entrepreneurs ever since people began groping for a northern sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific nearly five centuries ago. Even in an era of nuclear-powered ice-breakers, only about 100 ships have crossed the fabled Northwest Passage through Canada’s frozen archipelago.

But conditions are changing fast.

The average amount of sea ice has fallen by 8 percent over the past three decades, shrinking the ice cap by nearly 400,000 square miles (an area the size of Texas), according to the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment study released in November.

Hundreds of scientists took part in the four-year study of Arctic conditions. The work was sponsored by an eight-nation group with Arctic territories, including the United States.

The study concluded that greenhouse gases are causing temperatures to rise nearly twice as fast in the Arctic as in other parts of the world — a trend that climate models suggest will quickly change the character of one of the most inhospitable places on Earth.

At the current warming rate, models suggest, the north coasts of Russia and Canada could be ice-free for most of the summer by 2050. Some scenarios suggest the entire ice cap could disappear for a month or more.

Such conditions would have a profound effect on the Arctic’s delicately balanced environment, threatening the lives of animals and the livelihoods of indigenous people.

It would also make possible the kind of trade routes the world’s major shipping companies would find hard to ignore. Today, routes between Asia and Europe require lengthy detours through the Panama or Suez canals.

“If you could steam through [the Arctic Ocean] at containership speeds, you could save five days from Asia to Europe,” said Walter Parker, a marine-transportation expert and chairman of the Circumpolar Infrastructure Task Force, which paid for the Cambridge workshop.

That’s not a pleasing thought for Panama Canal officials. The canal’s series of locks and waterways transformed international shipping 90 years ago when it opened a gateway between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

Worried by reports in the Panamanian press about the melting ice cap, canal authorities have asked Brigham, the deputy director of the U.S. research commission, to meet with them later this month to get a better handle on whether changing conditions in the Arctic would require them to rethink their own expansion plans.

“It’s a bit hilarious that we are going to Panama to brief them on the Arctic, but it shows the strategic consequences,” Brigham said. “Our message for them is that there is so much [shipping] traffic in the world, there will always be a need for them.”

Not smooth sailing

Indeed, Brigham and Parker argue that the Arctic as a shipping route will continue to be challenging even if the sea ice recedes.

Shrouded in darkness during the winter, the Arctic Ocean will never be ice-free for the entire year. When and where — not to mention how thick — the ice will form would be difficult to predict. And reinforced ships capable of withstanding unexpected ice collisions would be costlier to build and operate.

Arctic shipping would require a massive international investment in navigational aids, climate monitoring, ice-breakers and other equipment.

Also, shipping lines demand reliable schedules. And the hard-to-predict behavior of sea ice in Canada’s Arctic islands means that it may take many more decades before the Northwest Passage becomes a viable shipping route between Asia and Europe — if it ever does.

Instead, most experts say the Northern Sea Route along the top of Russia is where regular trans-Arctic shipping is likely to happen first. Not only are the ice conditions more favorable there, the country has pioneered the route for decades, primarily for moving natural resources along the coast.

Shipping companies and governments are just starting to look at how they could turn a less-icy Arctic Ocean to their advantage.

Iceland is positioning itself as the natural location to build ports where cargo containers could be transferred between standard ships and specialized ice-strengthened carriers that would travel along the top of the world. A similar facility could be built on Alaska’s coast.

For Port Commissioner Davis, it isn’t too early for the Port of Seattle to start planning for a sea change from the north.

“I don’t think anyone can say what the implications will be for us at this point,” she said.

“But we need to take a global view of this. We have to take note now.”

J. Martin McOmber: 206-464-2022 or