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Arctic shipping guidance from the CMIP6 ensemble on operational and infrastructural timescales

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The expectation of a seasonally ice-free Arctic by mid-century has sparked economic and geopolitical interest in potential Arctic opportunities and risks. But substantial sea ice variability across timescales suggests an uncertain future for forecasts of marine accessibility, especially over operational (< 2 years) and infrastructural (> 5 years) time spans that significantly influence decision-makers planning ship routing, emergency management, port investment, and more. Here, we use three marine accessibility schemes applied to CMIP6 scenarios to quantify Arctic shipping season variability and uncertainty across these decision-relevant timescales. We compare route projections across climate models and accessibility schemes to show that the choice of methodology significantly affects information important for decision-making. We find high variability and uncertainty in voyage time notably in the critical “shoulder” seasons on both timescales. This leads to increased risk over the next several decades, with high short-term uncertainty particularly at the end of the shipping season for the next 25 years. Navigation risk is expected to decline from 2045 onward. Knowledge that accounts for sea ice variability, simulation quality, and accessibility algorithm allows for better investment decisions and the minimization of unforeseen costs due to delayed and canceled voyages. Here we develop and demonstrate a framework for developing more timely and salient information to guide decisions on Arctic shipping relevant to both operational and infrastructural horizons as climate projections become spatially and physically better resolved.

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Data availability

The datasets used in this study are freely available at

Change history

  • 31 August 2021

    The wrong Supplementary file was originally published with this article; it has now been replaced with the correct file. Duplicate Supplementary files were also removed


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We thank the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP), which makes the CMIP6 datasets available from the Earth System Grid Federation (ESGF). We would also like to thank Dr. Simon Donner and the two anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments.


This research was jointly funded by the National Science Foundation through grant NNA/CNH-S 1824829 and grant NNA 2022554.

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Authors and Affiliations



X. Li led the data preparation, analysis, and writing of this paper. S.R. Stephenson and A.H. Lynch contributed to the orientation, structure, design, and writing. M. A. Goldstein, D. A. Bailey, and S. Veland contributed to data preparation and analysis. M. A. Goldstein contributed to writing the final version of the draft. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Xueke Li.

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Scheme 1

Daily ice data (MP4 8771 kb)

Scheme 2

Daily adjustment (MP4 9867 kb)

Scheme 3

Sub-grid scale ice variations (MP4 9867 kb)

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Li, X., Stephenson, S.R., Lynch, A.H. et al. Arctic shipping guidance from the CMIP6 ensemble on operational and infrastructural timescales. Climatic Change 167, 23 (2021).

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  • Decision-relevant climate information
  • Arctic maritime accessibility
  • Sea ice variability
  • CMIP6
  • Navigation risk