Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Northwest Passage Opens

Since mankind began exploring the seas in great sailing ships it has been the dream and passion of many captains to find the elusive Northwest Passage. And until this year, a dream it was, for the Northwest Passage has always been ice-bound.

The yellow line shows that the most direct route through the Northwest Passage has opened up fully for the first time since records began, the European Space Agency (ESA) says. An ice-free "Northwest Passage," a shipping route north of the Canadian mainland that could provide a shortcut for transit between the Atlantic and Pacific.

Using satellite data and imagery provided by the ESA, the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) now estimates the Arctic ice pack to cover 4.24 million square kilometers (1.63 million square miles) -- equal to just less than half the size of the United States.
That figure is about 20 percent less than the previous all-time low of 5.32 million square kilometers (2.05 million square miles) set in September 2005.

Mark Serreze, senior research scientist at NSIDC, termed the decline astounding. "It's almost an exclamation point on the pronounced ice loss we've seen in the past 30 years," he said. Most researchers had anticipated the complete disappearance of the Arctic ice pack during summer months would happen after the year 2070, he said, but now, "losing summer sea ice cover by 2030 is not unreasonable."

While the loss of sea ice, like the Arctic ice pack, would not contribute to sea level rise, wildlife experts say it could alter the Arctic ecology, threatening polar bears and other mammals and sea life.
Scientists add that an ice-free Arctic could also accelerate global warming, as white-colored ice tends to deflect heat, while darker-colored water would absorb more heat.

But along with concerns, the melting Arctic also raises possible opportunities on business and political fronts. This summer, both Russia and the United States made efforts to inventory the potential mineral wealth on the ocean floor beneath the declining ice pack. Russia also sent a submarine to the North Pole to stake a symbolic claim to the Arctic as a part of the Russian nation.

Photo credit: European Space Agency