Thoughtlessly expanding activity uses in a poorly understood region already under enormous stress could have dire consequences not only for the Arctic but for our entire planet.
By Dr. John J. Hidore
January 25, 2014—-European explorers in the late fifteenth century began sea voyages westward expecting to find Asia with its riches of spices and ivory. Instead, they located a land then unknown to them, eventually called the Americas. Once they learned there was another ocean beyond this newly found land, they began looking for a way through or around it. At the southern end of the land mass they found the Strait of Magellan. This provided a way around the Americas into the Pacific Ocean. It was, however, a long route.
Exploring a Route through the Islands of the Arctic Sea
Soon, they began looking for a water route around the north end of the land mass. Beginning in the late 18th Century, they started a concentrated effort to explore a route through the islands of the Arctic Sea. Exploration began from both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The explorations were quit varied in mode of travel and resources available.
Many explorers were looking for an open route, including the Franklin expedition which launched in 1845. Though they were experienced and well equipped, the two ships in the search were lost along with their entire crews. Canadian scientists recently discovered the remains of the ship, Erebus, which was one of two ships in Sir John Franklin’s expedition to find the Northwest Passage in 1845. Other expeditions suffered the same fate. During the next century alternate routes through the passage were explored, discovering several possible routes. Various ships and small boats navigated the passage either in pieces or over more than one season.
Navigating the Northwest Passage of the Arctic
It was not until 1944 that a ship navigated a route in one season. Traveling from east to west, Henry Larsen, captain of the St. Roch, made the trip in a single summer. In order to claim navigation of the Northwest Passage, a ship must cross the Arctic Circle twice. Once in the Pacific and once in the Atlantic. Many transits of the passage took place in the second half of the 20th Century, all under special conditions and with the use of ice breakers.
Declining Sea Ice of the Arctic Basin
Satellite images of the Arctic Sea have been available since the 1970s. The satellite data confirms that sea ice has declined throughout the Arctic Basin, but more in some places than others. In recent years the air temperatures over the arctic has been more than 10ºF (5.5 ºC) warmer than the average for the last 30 years. As a result of the warmer temperatures, the ice has been thawing further from shore and the remaining perennial ice pack has been getting thinner. In some areas, it is only half as thick as it was a few decades ago. The summer melting of sea ice has been taking place at an ever increasing rate. It is now taking place much faster than predictions made a decade ago.
Shipping has increased sharply in the past decade. Early forecasting of Arctic warming suggested a possible ice free path through the North West Passage in the summer months sometime between 2050 and 2100. However, at the end of the summer melt period in 2007, there was an open passage of water circling the Arctic Sea. It was hailed as the opening of the Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Melting Arctic Ice Opens the Way for Commercial Use
Every summer for the past decade this area of sea ice has been below the average of the previous 20 years. An ore carrier loaded with 15,000 tons of coal sailed through the passage in 2013. The Nordic Orion owned by Bulk Partners left Vancouver, BC September 17 and reached Greenland in about a week. In the period September 19-30, 2014 a cargo ship made it through the Northwest Passage without the aid of an icebreaker to accompany it. The MV Nunavik left Canada’s Deception Bay and rounded Alaska’s Point Barrow on September 30 headed for the port of Bayuquan, China. The cargo consisted of nickel ore mined in Deception Bay in Nunavik province of Canada. The specially designed ship can force its way through up to five feet (1.5m) of ice.
The route from Deception Bay to the port of Bayuquan through the Northwest Passage is 40% shorter than through the Panama Canal. Through fuel savings the company expects to make substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Also, in the past year, a travel company announced it would offer a 32 day, 900 mile luxury cruise through the Northwest Passage. The cruise would operate between Seward, Alaska and New York City. Fares would start at $20,000.
The evidence of change in sea ice parallels other evidence that global warming is taking place much faster than past climate models forecast. If the passage remains open in future years remains to be seen. At its current rate of melting, the Arctic Ocean could be totally ice free in summer this century, if not in several decades. It is even possible a dependable summer ice free passage for shipping may be available within the next decade.
The Arctic is one of our planet’s last pristine ecosystems. As the Ocean Conservatory states, “We need a time-out to understand the implications of destroying this environment. The Arctic needs our help today. Thoughtlessly expanding activity uses in a poorly understood region already under enormous stress could have dire consequences not only for the Arctic but for our entire planet.”