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Global warm­ing will open Arc­tic to inva­sive species, sci­en­tists say

pub­lished 03 June 2014 | mod­i­fied 03 June 2014

For the first time in roughly 2 mil­lion years, melt­ing Arc­tic sea ice is con­nect­ing the north Pacific and north Atlantic oceans. The newly opened pas­sages leave both coasts and Arc­tic waters vul­ner­a­ble to a large wave of inva­sive species, biol­o­gists from the Smith­son­ian Envi­ron­men­tal Research Cen­ter assert in a com­men­tary pub­lished May 28 in Nature Cli­mate Change.

Ballast water-dischargeTwo new ship­ping routes have opened in the Arc­tic: the North­west Pas­sage through Canada, and the North­ern Sea Route, a 3000-​mile stretch along the coasts of Rus­sia and Nor­way con­nect­ing the Bar­ents and Bering seas. While new oppor­tu­ni­ties for tap­ping Arc­tic nat­ural resources and inte­ro­ceanic trade are high, com­mer­cial ships often inad­ver­tently carry inva­sive species. Organ­isms from pre­vi­ous ports can cling to the under­sides of their hulls or be pumped in the enor­mous tanks of bal­last water inside their hulls. Now that cli­mate change has given ships a new, shorter way to cross between oceans, the risks of new inva­sions are escalating.

Trans-​Arctic ship­ping is a game changer that will play out on a global scale
Whit­man Miller, lead author, Smith­son­ian Envi­ron­men­tal Research Center »

“The eco­nomic draw of the Arc­tic is enor­mous. Whether it’s greater access to the region’s rich nat­ural resource reserves or cheaper and faster inter-​ocean com­mer­cial trade, Arc­tic ship­ping will reshape world mar­kets. If unchecked, these activ­i­ties will vastly alter the exchange of inva­sive species, espe­cially across the Arc­tic, north Atlantic and north Pacific oceans,” Miller said.

The first com­mer­cial voy­age through the North­west Pas­sage — a car­rier from British Colum­bia loaded with coal bound for Fin­land — occurred in Sep­tem­ber 2013. Mean­while, traf­fic through the North­ern Sea Route has been ris­ing rapidly since 2009. The sci­en­tists project that at the cur­rent rate, it could con­tinue to rise 20 per­cent every year for the next quar­ter cen­tury, and this does not take into account ships sail­ing to the Arc­tic itself.

For the past 100-​plus years, ship­ping between oceans passed through the Panama or Suez Canals. Both con­tain warm, trop­i­cal water, likely to kill or severely weaken poten­tial invaders from colder regions. In the Panama Canal, species on the hulls of ships also had to cope with a sharp change in salin­ity, from marine to com­pletely fresh water. The Arc­tic pas­sages con­tain only cold, marine water. As long as species are able to endure cold tem­per­a­tures, their odds of sur­viv­ing an Arc­tic voy­age are good. That, com­bined with the shorter length of the voy­ages, means many more species are likely to remain alive through­out the journey.

Though the routes pose major risks to the north Atlantic and north Pacific coasts, the Arc­tic is also becom­ing an attrac­tive des­ti­na­tion. Tourism is grow­ing, and it con­tains vast stores of nat­ural resources. The Arc­tic holds an esti­mated 13 per­cent of the world’s untapped oil and 30 per­cent of its nat­ural gas. Greenland’s sup­ply of rare earth met­als is esti­mated to be able to fill 20 to 25 per­cent of global demand for the near future. Until now the Arc­tic has been largely iso­lated from inten­sive ship­ping, shore­line devel­op­ment and human-​induced inva­sions, but the sci­en­tists said that is likely to change dras­ti­cally in the decades to come.

“The good news is that the Arc­tic ecosys­tem is still rel­a­tively intact and has had low expo­sure to inva­sions until now,” said co-​author Greg Ruiz. “This novel cor­ri­dor is only just open­ing. Now is the time to advance effec­tive man­age­ment options that pre­vent a boom in inva­sions and min­imise their eco­log­i­cal, eco­nomic and health impacts.”

(Source: Smith­son­ian Sci­ence news, 28.05.2014)

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