Marine transportation in the Arctic Ocean could become a reality in the next few decades as climate change thins Arctic sea ice, allowing icebreaker ships to plow through, scientists say.
Now Adak, a fishing town of about 120 on the far eastern tip of the Aleutian Islands, is set to begin plowing through the political and logistical waters of establishing the route.
This year's state capital budget, which still awaits the governor's signature, sends $50,000 to Adak to study the social and economic returns of an Arctic Ocean cargo shuttle to Iceland. The passage would be a route competitive with the Panama Canal.
"The question that needs to be addressed is what are the economics that would drive an arctic shuttle concept," said Ben Ellis of the Anchorage-based research group Institute of the North.
The group has worked closely with Adak officials to study the shuttle concept. Ellis said it likely would be at least a couple of decades before the ice melts enough to open the Arctic passages, but other countries such as Russia, Canada, Iceland and Greenland already are working toward using the routes once they become available.
"Experts from Alaska and Iceland will work with Finnish icebreaker technologists, Russian administrators of the Northern Sea Route and other appropriate sources of information in completing the study," the budget proposal states. "The study will determine what further public and private investment might initiate service this decade."
Ellis said the study could aim to answer questions such as whether a seasonal or year-round route would be more economical.
"If the economics says it has to be year-round, you are looking at a different scenario," he said.
It also would examine the political landscape of operating in international waters, he said.
Lamar Cotton, a project manager for the city of Adak, said the route could provide alternative passages between Europe and the Northern Pacific, allowing ships a route quicker than the Panama Canal.
"We recognize this is a long-term look at things," Cotton said.
According to the project proposal, the money would help establish an agreement between the Aleutian and Icelandic ports to share information and pursue gathering other logistical information to establish the route.
The study likely would be commissioned by the Institute of the North, the city of Adak and the Aleut Corp.