Modeling Risk from Black Carbon in a Coupled Natural-Human System at the Arctic Ice Edge


Warming in the Arctic has occurred at more than twice the global average, with negative impacts on ecosystems, wildfires, infrastructure, and Indigenous livelihoods. At the same time, this "Arctic amplification" may yield potentially positive impacts on some Arctic industries, such as shipping. Estimates of sea-ice extent project an ice-free Arctic over the next century, but more near-term projections are uncertain, notably increasing the risk (and required return) of investments in shipping infrastructure. Despite this uncertainty and the attendant risks, early investments and policy planning are underway for a not-so-distant future in which a transpolar shipping route might be competitive with the Suez Canal. This transformation would have far-reaching effects on shipping costs, global and national competitiveness, the finances of multiple countries, and the deployment of commercial and military assets. Early adopters in Arctic shipping could conceivably bring this future closer: soot (black carbon) deposited on the ice from local ship traffic has been identified as a contributor to Arctic amplification, since the soot deposited on ice absorbs heat from the sun, accelerating ice melt. This feedback might accelerate the opening of sea lanes, but also increase the year-to-year shipping season variance, increasing uncertainty. As such, if financial analysts assume sea ice retreats in a predictably linear fashion, they likely underestimate the cost of variation in shipping season length, which may in turn affect investment behavior and risk-taking.

This project asks how risk assessments of Arctic shipping under environmental and geopolitical change can incorporate the risk of amplification from black carbon deposition. To answer this question, the project seeks to understand the reciprocal relationships among ocean-atmosphere-ice dynamics, shipping accessibility, risk-finance-traffic dynamics, and black carbon emissions. Given that uncertainties in sea ice projections are to some extent irreducible, this necessitates a systems approach that can characterize uncertainties. Innovative model simulations of the dynamics of coupling between atmospheric processes, sea ice, and ocean heat transfer will constrain the role of local and global sources of black carbon. Grounded insights on risk management and perception will produce refined estimates of shipping volumes and associated black carbon emissions. The scientific output that will be produced will be disseminated to practitioners and policy-makers in the US and abroad. The project will additionally, train a new generation of interdisciplinary researchers and professionals by running a winter session class for students from the educational institutions involved in the project to help prepare a new generation for a rapidly-changing Arctic and world.

Logistics Summary

This study examines the feedbacks between sea ice dynamics, shipping access, risk management, and black carbon (BC) emissions. The 4 main goals are: 1) To determine whether BC emissions from shipping contributes a positive feedback affecting the rate of retreat of Arctic sea ice. 2) To price the interannual variability in shipping access to ascertain whether it affects the financial risk and expected value of Arctic shipping and investments. 3) To evaluate whether appropriate regulation of BC emissions will affect the near-term profitability of Arctic shipping routes 4) To test whether planners' expectations of Arctic shipping viability are conditioned by time scales that are influenced by BC - sea ice feedbacks. In January 2019 a field team of 3 conducted scoping interviews with shipping investors and operators in Oslo, Bodø, Longyearbyen (Norway) and Helsinki (Finland) to determine parameters under which financial risk was incorporated into decisions regarding Arctic shipping investments. The interviews in Helsinki were conducted as part of our attendance at the Arctic Shipping Forum. These interviews were also used to develop the baseline BC scenario. In January 2020, a field team of 3 will bring 12 students from Brown University and Babson College to a winter session class on Arctic natural-human systems. In January 2021 a field team of 3 will return to Norway to conduct Q-surveys and present preliminary project results. A subcontract was awarded as part of this grant to the former PI to retain project leadership functions and lead the work performed by the Norland Research Institute. Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, 2021 and 2022 fieldwork were limited to remote interviews. A No Cost Extension was granted to extend the project to 2022.

Principal Investigators

Project Outcomes

The Arctic Ocean presents tremendous challenges due to its remoteness and harsh climate, but has nevertheless prompted human aspirations spanning centuries. The abundant living and mineral resources, the potential for new scientific discoveries and new territories, the opportunities to flourish in long established peripheral homelands ? these diverse purposes have supported an Arctic that is far from empty. The ability to control the use of the Arctic Ocean has become increasingly valuable over time, supporting colonial and strategic developments along with commercial ones.

Now, Arctic sea ice is in rapid retreat, to levels not observed since at least 1850. An ice-free summer is on the horizon. More than any other Arctic trend, this massive transition has raised expectations for both new opportunities and new challenges, in hydrocarbon exploitation, international shipping, infrastructure development, fisheries, tourism, and Indigenous self-determination.

This project sought to understand the risks and costs associated with Arctic operations, particularly associated with feedbacks and unintended consequences. Specifically, we found that the emissions of black carbon associated with proposed increased Arctic shipping did not feedback to cause increased ice retreat. The signal was dwarfed in fact by black carbon emanating from sources at lower latitudes, such as manufacturing in China and Russia. That said, there was a small feedback specifically associated with Arctic shipping that led to changes in particular regions (the Greenland Sea and the Labrador Sea) caused by a shift in atmospheric circulation.

We systematically explored the potentials for opening of trans-Arctic sea routes across a range of emissions futures and multi-model ensembles. We found a new Transpolar Sea Route in the western Arctic for open water vessels starting in 2045 in addition to the central Arctic corridor over the North Pole. The emergence of this new western route could be decisive for operational and strategic outcomes. Specifically, the route redistributes transits away from the Russian-administered Northern Sea Route (NSR), lowering the navigational and financial risks and the regulatory friction. That said, in estimating the costs associated with uncertainties in these scenarios, we found that the costs of uncertainty in interannual variability are larger than the costs of uncertainty in climate scenario, even out to the 2060s. This cost is typically hidden due the practice of using multi-model ensemble averages to estimate future risks.

Because Russia is the most extensive Arctic nation and mantains jurisdiction over the most active shipping route in the Arctic, the NSR, we also investigated the impact of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Internationally imposed sanctions on Russia prohibit payments for NSR access, have led to refusals to insure vessels and cargo, and have deterred usage due to legal uncertainties. Furthermore, Russia has limited NSR access for strategic reasons. Costs are high: using 16 climate model realizations and prudent assumptions regarding global trade, we estimate the cumulative cost of closing the NSR for the season could range from just under US$900 million to as much as US$3.3 billion.

Project PI(s)
Other Research Location(s)
Helsinki, Finland
Bodo, Norway
Longyearbyen, Norway
Oslo, Norway
Project Start Date
Sep 2018
Award Year