Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Real or not, global warming is a fact of nautical life

It was a conversation I was having a lot more in recent years: the patriarch of the family, what yacht crews call the “charter primary,” visited me on the bridge, asked me the usual questions (“Were you in the Navy?” What kind of engines do you have on here?”), then proceeded to explain to me how “global warming” was nonsense, and that it was obvious to anyone who could do a few simple calculations on the back of an envelope. I joked that some day we would be offering yacht charters above the Arctic Circle. “Not in your lifetime,” he said confidently.

I’m not sure a lot of shipping company executives would agree with him. Scientists measuring the winter extent of arctic ice say it’s getting smaller over time, and what some see as an environmental disaster others see as a great business opportunity. Everyone from local Inuit tribes, making money off an increased Coast Guard presence, to big energy companies lining up to tap more easily accessible oil and natural gas reserves, are seeing opportunity in the Arctic Ocean. Shipping companies see a route from Asia to the American east coast that’s faster (about half the time) than the Panama Canal route and cheaper than paying west coast port costs, as well as rail or trucking costs.

It’s not all good news for the maritime industry, though. Whether they believe in global warming or not, vessel operators are going to have to take into account regulatory changes designed to ameliorate its effects. Foss Maritime is already using low-sulfur fuel in its tugs and is developing hybrid technology for the next generation of its vessels. Small operators along the InterCoastal Waterway worry about the disappearance of barrier islands under rising sea levels. Retreating glaciers in Alaska leave more ice in the water, open up channels faster than they can be charted and, in the long term, and make a huge tourist attraction less accessible and available. For a lot of companies, from Mom and Pop tour operators to large shipping companies, changes are happening right now.

For a transcript of International Maritime Organization Secretary-General Efthimios E. Mitropoulous's address to last year's "Impacts of Climate Change On the Maritime Industry" conference, see www.imo.org/About/mainframe.asp?topic_id=1698&doc_id=10058

Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrique, of the Dept. of Global Studies & Geography at Hofstra University, has published a great map of polar shipping routes at people.hofstra.edu/geotrans/eng/ch1en/conc1en/polarroutes.html

Oliver Burkeman of The Guardian filed his excellent article on the Arctic resource rush, "A Very Cold War," in April 2008. Find it at www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/apr/05/poles.endangeredhabitats

Filed from the M/V Spirit of Yorktown in Tracy Arm, Southeast Alaska

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