Arctic sea ice loosens grip on Northwest Passage
Sparks territorial rights row
The Northwest Passage, a much-sought shipping route, opened to sea traffic this summer, as arctic sea ice fell to the lowest levels observed since we started keeping track almost 30 years ago.
Pictures of the open sea were captured by European Space Agency satellites.
Satellite image showing the clear seas of the Northwest Passage. Credit: ESA
The passage has been traversed by armoured ice-breaking vessels, but until now has not been sufficiently clear of ice to permit commercial traffic.
The sea ice cover is naturally greater in the winter, falling back in the summer. Since 1978, when researchers stared monitoring the ebb and flow of the ice in the region, it has broken up more and more quickly each summer, although enough ice remained to leave the passage impassable.
The previous minimum was in 2005/2006, when the sea ice coverage dropped to four million square kilometres, although the Northwest Passage remained closed. This year, scientists say there was just three million square kms of ice through the summer months.
It is the suddenness of the drop – a million square kilometres in a year – that has sparked comment. "There has been a reduction of the ice cover over the last 10 years of about 100,000 square km per year on average, so a drop of one million square km in just one year is extreme," explains Leif Toudal Pedersen from the Danish National Space Centre.
The long-sought shortcut between the major land masses of the North, linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, has already sparked rows. Canada has claimed rights to the passage, but the US and the UK (unsurprisingly) say the route should be open to international shipping.
The image above is a mosaic of over 200 individual snaps taken by the Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar instrument aboard ESA's Envisat satellite. The dark grey represents clear water, while sea ice is colour-coded green. ®
Do you really think the US and UK, when calling for for a shipping route to be 'international', will really use anything other than their own twisted definition of the word?
About the circle... and the Northeast Passage
Actually that circle is a censorship mark, to hide the indecent exposure of the Top Gear team's private tackle, when they used the portable lavvy on the back of their Toyota during their North Pole race!
On another note, we've been monitoring and probing the polar passages for much longer than 30 years, or even 100 years. In "Moby-Dick", written in 1851, Herman Melville describes the difficulty of navigating this route:
"...some whales have been captured far north in the Pacific, in whose bodies have been found the barbs of harpoons darted in the Greenland seas... the interval of time between the two assaults could not have exceeded very many days. Hence, by inference, it has been believed by some whalemen, that the Nor'West Passage, so long a problem to man, was never a problem to the whale."
Much of the early exploration of America was driven by attempts to find navigable passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Prior to the Panama Canal, the only way to sail around America was either the Northeast Passage (called the Nor'West Passage by Melville), or south via Patagonia and the Straits of Magellan. Both routes were perilous for shipping; the Northeast Passage because of ice floes, Patagonia because of the violent weather and rough seas.
It's interesting that Canada wants to lay claim to this passage (presumably so they can milk tolls and taxes out of shipping going that way) now that it's opening up. So the US isn't the only bellicose, territory-grabbing nation left on the planet. Well, for once I support the US and UK on this one: it should be declared as international waters, and no greedy money-grubbers should be permitted to charge artificial access fees to free and open sea.
I'm just sick of it. Every time a new natural benefit everyone can use is discovered, some greedy, exploitative bastard has to try to find a way to STEAL from other people who want to use it. It would be good if we could start hunting down the cretins who think of these things and execute them for crimes against humanity.
All the news services are going on about this, citing AGW as the cause, but they conveniently never mention this fact. The Antarctic ice shelf is the largest it has been in the last 30 years.
As an aside, Polar Bear numbers are increasing, Greenland is again living up to the name the Vikings gave it, and global mean temperatures are decreasing after their 1998 peak.
"LAND RIGHTS FOR GAY WHALES" - A division of Greenpeace