Ice-road truckers may become an endangered species as climate change intensifies in the Arctic, concludes a new study that examines how rising temperatures will alter the transportation mix in the far north.

Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, say that by midcentury, warming will significantly limit the areas suitable for constructing temporary roads each winter. The season for using such roads, key transport routes for cargo, will also shorten.

But the scientists, whose work was published Sunday in the journal Nature Climate Change, say the same conditions will create new possibilities for sea travel. By 2050, they project, shrinking summer sea ice will open three long-sought shipping lanes to ice-strengthened vessels for months at a time.

They also expect rising temperatures to expand access year-round to coastlines in Canada, Greenland, Russia and the United States.

The changes could put inland Arctic states at a greater disadvantage compared to their coastal neighbors, said study co-author Scott Stephenson, a professor of geography at UCLA.

"These communities that rely on winter roads for resupply and local transport are most often remote settlements that are rather inland, away from coasts," he said. "It's these communities that stand to lose the most as a result of loss of roads."

Northwest Passage remains a dream, for a while
Adapting to the loss of winter ice roads may require those communities to rely more on air cargo shipments or to build permanent roads.

Stephenson and his colleagues, UCLA professors Laurence Smith and John Agnew, project that Iceland will lose the highest proportion of land suitable for ice roads, at 82 percent.

But Stephenson said that projected losses of 13 percent in both Canada and Russia are more significant, simply because those nations have larger networks of winter roads to begin with.

"It's well-known and well-discussed in the Arctic that [maritime] shipping routes are likely to become more viable as a result of melting sea ice," he said. "But this aspect on land is much less well understood."

The researchers were also surprised that their analysis does not project that the Northwest Passage will be fully accessible to summer travel by ice-strengthened vessels by midcentury.

Instead, their work envisions an Arctic where three other shipping lanes are open to ship traffic: the Northern Sea Route, the Arctic Bridge and the North Pole.

"It was a bit surprising when so much of the attention has been on the Northwest Passage," Stephenson said.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500