Air quality in Alaska is threatened because in the last two decades receding sea-ice has opened sea-routes in the Arctic. Obviously, using shorter routes for shipping has economic advantages. Read what besides boreal wildfires cause air pollution in the Arctic.
- Air Quality in Alaska under Scrutiny by Nature and Economy
- Why Arctic Shipping?
- Sightseeing Cruises
- The Future Brings Emission Changes
- What Gets in the Air?
- Environmental Impacts of Increased Arctic Shipping
- Air Pollution Bears Health and Hazard Risks
- Not All Pollutants in the Arctic Were Emitted in the Arctic
- Summary of Air Pollution in the Arctic and Air Quality in Alaska
Just a question: Have you ever thought about the travel your clothes made to finally end up in your closet?
Air Quality in Alaska under Scrutiny by Nature and Economy
Over the last decade, the Alaska Arctic has experienced notably increases in emissions due to last-chance tourism, shipping of supply for offshore oil and gas exploration, and increased commercial shipping. According to Canadian data, monthly ship traffic increased up to 22 vessels per decade in July, and eight vessels per decade annually for government vessels, icebreakers and pleasure crafts.
Why Arctic Shipping?
The decreasing sea-ice extend has provided potential shortcuts for intercontinental transportation. For instance, cruising from Rotterdam, The Netherlands to Yokohama, Japan via the Northern Sea Route – a shipping lane along the Russian Arctic coast from Murmansk to the Bering Strait – cuts the distance by 40% as compared to the route through the Suez Canal. A voyage from Europe to North China through the Northern Sea Route takes 55 days, which is 9 days less than the traditional route.
Who can blame Chinese shipping experts for their considering the Northern Sea Route to Europe on a regular basis after in October 2015, the Chinese vessel Yong Sheng had finished her record-setting round-trip from Europe to North China? The savings in costs (salary, fees, fuel, insurance, etc.), time, and the comparatively lower amount of emissions make traveling Arctic shipping routes attractive.
Besides the economic incentives, the uncertainty regarding the renovation of the Panama Canal, pirates and the political situation in the Middle East provide additional arguments in favor of Arctic Shipping Routes. Companies may decide for investing in Arctic-suitable vessels when updating/extending their fleets despite of higher upfront-costs than regular commercial vessels.
Last chance tourism has become more popular in recent years. The Vice President of Crystal Cruises, MacGarva announced that the Hong Kong based company has planned a 900-passenger Crystal Serenity’s 32-day voyage from Anchorage to New York through the Northwest Passage in August 2016.
The Future Brings Emission Changes
One has to expect that Arctic ship emissions further increase in the future. Increased Arctic shipping, Arctic sightseeing tourism as well as Alaska and Norway offshore gas/oil activities inevitably will increase the Arctic fleet of the Coast Guards for Search-and-Rescue, the supply-shipping to Arctic communities, the population living along the Arctic Coast, the emissions from power generation, residential and business sources, as well as vehicle and air traffic to and from Arctic communities.
What Gets in the Air?
During their voyage, ships emit primary particles and precursor gases like sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx=NO+NO2 nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide), and volatile organic compounds (VOC) into the marine and coastal lower atmosphere. Here so-called secondary pollutants and/or secondary particles form by chemical reactions and so-called gas-to-particle conversion. Think of the latter process as a similar process like the phase transition from water-vapor to ice.
Environmental Impacts of Increased Arctic Shipping
Increases in emissions may change atmospheric chemistry, the energy, water- and trace-gas budgets including cloudiness, precipitation formation, water supply to the atmosphere by evapotranspiration and sublimation as well as local weather. An increase in particles acting as cloud-condensation nuclei, for instance, may reduce droplet sizes, for which cloud and fog lifetimes increase, and precipitation may decrease. Note that cloud droplets build on these nuclei. The more nuclei exist the larger is the competition for water-vapor and the smaller the individual droplets will be.
Air Pollution Bears Health and Hazard Risks
All these impacts are of huge concern at various levels and time scales especially as in polar regions, pollutant-removal processes are slow. Some impacts may become health and safety issues for humans living and working in the polar regions. Long-term exposure to elevated concentrations of particulate matter of diameters less than 2.5 micrometer – so-called PM2.5, for instance, is health adverse. The hairs in your nose can’t scavenge them. Consequently, these particles get deep into your lungs.
Deposition of contaminants on land, water and sea-ice may be a burden for Arctic ecosystems and subsidence lifestyle. Reduced visibility due to Arctic haze, low-level clouds as well as super-cooled fog can cause hazardous conditions for small aircrafts, helicopters and vessels. Herein the term “super-cooled” refers to water at temperatures below the freezing point.
Super-cooled clouds and fog increase the risk of icing. Ships cruising through super-cooled fog or close to the freezing point seas with splashing waves, for instance, may accumulate ice above the sea-waterline, become top-heavy and turn around potentially spilling some or their entire load. Such accidents may not only cause the lost of lives and economic damage, but depending on the load, may require cleanup. In the harsh weather of the Arctic, such endeavors again put more humans, the environment, Arctic biota, and air quality at risk.
Not All Pollutants in the Arctic Were Emitted in the Arctic
Pollutants in the Arctic not only stem from emissions in the Arctic. In winter and spring, pollutants from emissions in Eurasia often reach the Norwegian and North American Arctic. In summer, pollutants from Boreal forest fires often reach the Arctic. In Alaska, we often have aged smoke from wildfires in Siberia. Not to mention that the smoke from the wildfires in Interior Alaska of course also may reach the Arctic. In March, we often observe brown layers of dust from the Gobi desert over Fairbanks.
Summary of Air Pollution in the Arctic and Air Quality in Alaska
In a nutshell, pollution does not know any borders. Even regions with low emissions like Alaska or the Arctic receive polluted air by transport of pollutants emitted in other regions. Even though the air in Alaska and the Arctic is still pristine on average, periods of lower air-quality may occur due to local emissions (e.g. wildfires, shipping) or accumulation of pollutants under inversion (e.g. from emissions due to residential heating, traffic and power generation). In winter, it often occurs that Fairbanks has poor air quality while the areas on the hills above the inversions have pristine air.
Eyring, V., Köhler, H.W., van Aardenne, J. and Lauer, A., 2005. Emissions from International Shipping: 1. The Last 50 Years. Journal of Geophysical Research, 110, Article ID: D17305. 10.1029/2004JD005620
Law, K.S. and Stohl, A., 2007. Arctic Air Pollution: Origins and Impacts. Science, 315, 1537-1540. doi: 10.1126/science.1137695
Mölders, N. and Gende, S., 2015. Impacts of Cruise-Ship Entry Quotas on Visibility and Air Quality in Glacier Bay. Journal of Environmental Protection, 6, 1236-1256. doi: 10.4236/jep.2015.611109.
Pirhalla, M.A., Gende, S. and Mölders, N., 2014. Fate of Particulate Matter from Cruise-Ship Emissions in Glacier Bay during the 2008 Tourist Season. Journal of Environmental Protection, 4, 1235-1254. doi: 10.4236/jep.2014.512118
Photos: G. Kramm
© 2013-2022 Nicole Mölders | All rights reserved