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Three polar bears are seen on the Beaufort Sea coast within the 1002 Area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.Reuters

The North Pole stands to become a viable international shipping route for some vessels in coming decades, as melting ice clears the way for cargo movement through corridors never before considered possible.

New research from the University of California, Los Angeles, predicts ice-strengthened ships will be able to regularly cross the top of the globe by mid-century in September, the month when ice cover is at its thinnest. Climate models run by UCLA researchers also show that by 2040 to 2059, the period they studied, the Northwest Passage and Russia's Northern Sea Route will both routinely open to transits from vessels with no ice strengthening at all.

"Our model is thinking about this the way a ship captain would. It's looking to optimize and do it as fast as possible," said Laurence C. Smith, a UCLA professor of geography. Once ice drops below 1.2 metres in thickness, it can be traversed by moderately ice-strengthened ships, the kind that currently sail through the Baltic Sea. At that point, the North Pole route, the shortest between the Pacific and the Atlantic, "begins to kick in as being favourable," he said.

It's unlikely there "will be a major shipping lane going over the North Pole," given the remoteness of the area and the fact that only a small proportion of the global shipping fleet is ice-strengthened. But the possibility that some ships could traverse the top of the earth is a surprising insight into the speed of Arctic change, he said.

"From a sea ice perspective, it is rather startling," Prof. Smith added.

The research, published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Plus, shows that new shipping options become possible in scenarios of both medium-low and high climate change. For Canada, the shifts predicted in the Northwest Passage are particularly notable. In the past 25 years, ships had only a 15-per-cent chance of making an open-water passage transit. That has risen to 17 to 27 per cent in the current decade, and will soar to 53 to 60 per cent by mid-century, depending on the forecast of climate change. That's enough that ships will be able to "commonly capitalize" on the distance savings of sailing through Canada's Arctic, the research finds.

That is "a little scary," Prof. Smith said. If open-water ships "can be tempted to go up there, they may. And I'm personally deeply concerned about that."

Indeed, academics with an interest in the Arctic say Canada faces numerous issues as receding ice opens new shipping paths.

The Northwest Passage has no current ports of refuge, limited navigational aids and distant search-and-rescue services. It has not been mapped to the standards of other shipping lanes and remains the subject of unresolved legal claims by Canada and the U.S. The urgency of addressing those shortcoming is highlighted by the UCLA study, said Michael Byers, a University of British Columbia Arctic policy expert who holds a Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law.

Canada may also need to change the way it thinks about its position in the world, he said.

"We're certainly having to think of the Northwest Passage by 2040, and probably a decade or two earlier, as an international shipping route comparable in some ways to the Strait of Gibraltar or the Bosphorus and Dardanelles. We don't think of ourselves as a so-called strait state, but that's the future," Mr. Byers said.

He added: "And to take it further, it's also going to bring Western Europe and East Asia closer together, which could affect perhaps the competitiveness of some of Canada's economy."

The reason comes down to distance. According to Prof. Smith, a Shanghai-to-Rotterdam voyage is 25,588 kilometres through the Panama Canal, 19,550 through the Suez Canal, 15,793 through the Northern Sea Route, 16,100 through the Northwest Passage and 13,630 across the North Pole.

The Canadian government, for its part, says it is working to safeguard against Arctic shipping accidents, which could pose a special menace to the fragile northern ecosystems. Transport Canada "has been actively involved" in developing International Maritime Organization Polar Guidelines, "and we are continuing our efforts at the IMO to develop a mandatory Polar Code," spokeswoman Kelly James said in an e-mail.

She said Ottawa is working on a number of initiatives "with the provinces and territories to monitor and prepare for the expected changes in shipping in the Arctic." More traffic could come through growing community resupply shipments, increased cruise voyages and the "potential for significant increases in vessel traffic related to resource development."

In 2011, the last year for which numbers are available, 26 vessels crossed the Northwest Passage. In 2001, just five passed through. And while much of that traffic has been adventure traffic, northern cargo movement has already begun elsewhere.

Last year, 46 vessels sailed the Northern Sea Route; this year, industry expects the number to rise to 60. On trips from northern Russia to Asia, travel across the top can cut as much as 19 days of travel, an enormous savings. It's shorter for ships departing northern Europe, too, and the hurdles to going north are surprisingly low: Rates to insure the Arctic route are comparable to travel through the Gulf of Aden, where pirates are active. Even the mandatory Russian tariff for icebreaker escort is not the obstacle it might seem.

"It's lower than what you have to pay going through the Suez Canal," said Ulf Hagen, managing director of Tschudi Arctic Transit, a Norwegian company that has sent more than a dozen vessels through what has been called the "Northeast Passage."

The greatest difficulty, for now, is the need for ice-strengthening on any ship travelling across the top of Russia. Such a ship can cost up to 30 per cent more than a comparable open-water vessel, although the degree of required ice protection in the Northern Sea Route is being lowered for several months this summer, after recent years showed the route ice-free for lengthy periods.

Still, industry will always face difficulties in travelling through a place where an overnight shift in wind can suddenly carry ice into open water – not to mention that even in high global warming scenarios, winter continues to bring thick ice to northern waters.

But, Mr. Hagen said, coming years could see a surge in traffic through the Northern Sea Route, particularly if container traffic diverts to a shipping lane that offers major distance savings between Asia and both Europe and the U.S.

"Because of the savings, yes – it's going to be quite extensive," he said.