Within the next 50 years, some ships will be able to travel from Europe to Asia by heading due north and then due south, by way of the North Pole, thanks to melting sea ice, a new study predicts.

At the same time, Canada's normally difficult and dangerous Northwest Passage will become accessible to light icebreakers year-round and to ordinary ships during the month of September, researchers from the University of California in L.A. say in a scientific paper published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers used computer models of sea ice thickness between 2006 and 2015 and between 2041 and 2059 to predict the fastest shipping routes for light icebreakers and regular open-water ships under those ice conditions.

The new route through the central Arctic Ocean highlighted in the study will only be navigable by light icebreakers in the summer and will remain ice-covered in the winter, said Laurence Smith, the UCLA earth sciences researcher who led the study.

"So I certainly don't imagine it somehow supplanting the activity to the Panama or Suez Canal or anything like that," he said in an interview with CBC's As It Happens.

However, it may still be appealing not just for its short length and speed, but also because it would allow ships to bypass the Russian Federation's Exclusive Economic Zone and the escort fees charged to international vessels through those waters, the paper noted.

In particular, it may attract those who want to exploit Arctic resources such as oil, gas, minerals and even fish, and then ship them to China.

"This might be exciting for business interests, but it should also be worrisome for environmental protection and also public safety in the area," Smith added.

He also expressed concerns about the opening up of the Northwest Passage, where he said an oil spill would be a "horrible tragedy."

The study also suggests that the dispute over whether the Northwest Passage is an internal Canadian waterway, as Canada maintains, or an international strait, as the U.S. and other countries argue, needs to be resolved sooner rather than later, Smith said.

"I would hope that this study will heighten the pressure or at least the motivation to adjudicate this difference."


The study predicted optimal September navigation routes for light icebreakers (red) and regular open-water (blue) ships traveling between Rotterdam, The Netherlands and St. John's, N.L., in the years 2040-2059. (Laurence C. Smith and Scott R. Stephenson/UCLA)