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Arctic Ocean is getting foggy as ice disappears

As the Arctic continues to warm and lose its sea ice, the increase in trans-Arctic shipping has significantly reduced travel time and costs for international trade. Yet, a new study reveals that the Arctic Ocean is becoming foggier as a result of disappearing ice, leading to reduced visibility and costly delays for ships that must slow down to avoid hitting dangerous sea ice.

The study, published in the AGU journal Geophysical Research Letters, examined the impact of climate change on fog conditions along Arctic shipping routes and how these conditions might change throughout the 21st century. 

The researchers used data on Arctic fog collected between 1979 and 2018, along with climate projections from the Fifth Phase of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project. By analyzing this information, the researchers were able to model alternate routes that could minimize foggy days during transit.

For decades, Arctic sea ice has been shrinking, opening up shipping channels in the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route. This has allowed even non-icebreaker vessels to bypass the time-consuming Panama and Suez Canals farther south. 

However, as ice recedes, cold air is exposed to more warm water, causing warm vapor to condense into fog in these newly opened passages. Hidden chunks of ice already present significant risks to vessels navigating through foggy, low-visibility routes.

“The future of shipping in the Arctic is unclear, but fog could pose a significant challenge,” said Xianyao Chen, a physical oceanographer at the Ocean University of China. “When designing shipping routes across the Arctic, we need to consider the impact of fog.”

What the researchers learned

The study’s findings indicate that ships crossing the Northwest Passage are more likely to encounter fog than those in the Northern Sea Route. Fog in the Northwest Passage, which avoids the Panama Canal, is more frequent and persistent, potentially increasing sailing time by up to three days. 

In comparison, the sailing time for the less-foggy Northern Sea Route, which avoids the Suez Canal, is projected to be no more than one day longer. The researchers suggest that both proposed passages would encounter less fog if the routes were shifted farther away from the sea ice edge.

Fog is already impacting the time saved by taking shorter Arctic routes, as shipping speeds on foggy days are slower than on clear days, according to Chen’s findings. 

If the Arctic continues to become foggier, shipping could slow even further unless routes are adjusted. With daily operating costs for large container ships typically ranging from $50,000 to $150,000, a multi-day delay due to fog could quickly increase the costs of a trans-Arctic crossing.

“Avoiding ice is critical,” said Scott Stephenson, a physical scientist at the RAND Corporation who was not affiliated with the study. “This study did a good job at identifying the risks of fog – an important environmental constraint in the Arctic, and one that has largely been ignored.” 

As the Arctic continues to warm and sea ice disappears, understanding and addressing the challenges posed by fog will become increasingly vital for the future of shipping in the region.

More about Arctic sea ice reduction

The loss of Arctic sea ice has significant implications for both the environment and human populations. As the Earth’s climate continues to warm, the Arctic region has been experiencing a more rapid rate of warming, leading to a decline in the extent and thickness of sea ice. This phenomenon, known as Arctic amplification, is causing profound changes to the region’s ecosystems, global weather patterns, and human activities.

Environmental impacts:

Albedo effect

Sea ice has a high albedo, meaning it reflects a large portion of incoming sunlight back into space, helping to regulate the Earth’s temperature. As sea ice disappears, the darker ocean surface absorbs more solar radiation, further accelerating the warming process.


The decline of sea ice disrupts the Arctic’s delicate ecosystems. Sea ice provides a habitat for various species, such as polar bears, walruses, and seals. As ice diminishes, these animals struggle to find suitable hunting grounds and resting places, putting their survival at risk. Additionally, the loss of sea ice affects the base of the marine food chain, impacting the availability of food for fish and other marine organisms.

Methane release

The Arctic region contains vast stores of methane in the form of frozen hydrates on the seabed and within the permafrost. As the region warms and sea ice melts, these methane deposits can become destabilized, releasing potent greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and further exacerbating climate change.

Ocean circulation

Melting sea ice contributes to the freshening of the Arctic Ocean’s surface waters, which can disrupt the global ocean circulation system. This alteration could lead to significant changes in global weather patterns and climate.

Human impacts:

Coastal communities

The loss of Arctic sea ice contributes to rising sea levels, putting low-lying coastal communities around the world at risk of flooding and erosion. Indigenous communities in the Arctic also face challenges to their traditional ways of life, as the changing environment impacts their hunting, fishing, and travel practices.

Shipping routes

The decline in sea ice has opened up new shipping routes in the Arctic, such as the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route. While these routes can potentially reduce travel time and costs for international trade, they also present challenges in the form of increased fog, as mentioned in the previous article, and navigational hazards from hidden ice.

Geopolitical tensions

The opening of new shipping lanes, as well as the potential for resource extraction in the Arctic, has led to geopolitical tensions among countries with interests in the region. Nations are vying for influence and control over these newly accessible areas, which could contribute to international conflicts.

Resource extraction

The melting of sea ice has made the Arctic’s vast reserves of oil, natural gas, and minerals more accessible. While this presents economic opportunities, it also raises concerns about the environmental impacts of increased resource extraction in the region.

The loss of Arctic sea ice has far-reaching consequences for both the environment and humanity. As the world grapples with the challenges of climate change, understanding and addressing the complex interplay between Arctic sea ice loss and its cascading effects is critical for the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants.


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