A U.S. study has found that emissions from ships that cause both climate change and acid rain could increase in the Western Arctic by almost 600 per cent over the next decade.
"All of those pollutants have climate and health implications," said co-author Alyson Azzara. "The fact that it's growing that much, that rapidly, is the focus."
Azzara's study, done for the environmental group the International Council on Clean Transportation, grows out of research she did for the U.S. government on probable increases to shipping in the waters off the Alaskan coast, adjacent to Canada's. The current study builds on that earlier research by estimating the emission impacts of that shipping.
Over the next decade, the study estimates that tanker, bulk carrier and general cargo shipping into the Western Arctic will grow by between 117 and 469 ships per year. If melting sea ice tempts some shippers to use either the Northwest Passage or Russia's Northern Sea Route for container ships, that total could increase to an extra 882 ships a year.
Although much has been written about a possible boom in Arctic shipping as melting sea ice renders formerly forbidding routes passable, experts suggest any increases are likely to be moderate at most.
Still, Azzara found it doesn't take much of an increase to raise emission levels. Even if shipping growth were only slightly above global economic growth over the next decade, the volume of pollutants pumped into the Arctic environment could dramatically increase.
Sulphur dioxide, a cause of acid rain, would increase 520 per cent to 830 tonnes per year by 2025, she predicted. Carbon dioxide, the main climate change culprit, would go up by 390 per cent to 54,000 tonnes.
Fine particles would go up by 580 per cent to 120 tonnes, she added, while the amount of black carbon released would more than quintuple to seven tonnes. Both pollutants are considered significant drivers of sea ice and snow melt and are major research subjects by the Canadian government.
Azzara's study deals specifically with Alaskan waters from the Bering Strait north and east to the international border.
But she said her findings should concern Canadians as well.
"Anything that's emitted in that area is not going to stay over the ocean and it's not necessarily going to stay within the United States."
As well, she said, "If a vessel is transiting out that way and is going to go across (Alaska's) North Slope, chances are it's going to go into Canada or it came from Canada."
A cleaner maritime fuel standard would go a long way toward easing those impacts, said Azzara. The U.S. and Canada already require ships to use low-sulphur fuel, but those rules only apply south of the Alaska panhandle in the Pacific and the northern tip of Labrador in the Atlantic.
"The consideration of expanding that requirement into the U.S. and Canadian Arctic is a domestic way of (reducing emissions)," said Azzara.
The International Maritime Organization is considering requiring low-sulphur fuel everywhere by 2020, but Azzara said an effort is underway to push that to 2025.
"The first step in mitigating those emissions is in keeping the 2020 implementation date."