Southern Route Through Arctic Nearly Ice-Free
Last month, a luxury cruise ship departed Seward, Alaska and steered toward the waterways of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. The excursion is one example of the growing human presence in an increasingly ice-free Northwest Passage—the famed high-latitude sea route that connects the northern Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
In mid-August 2016, the southern route through the passage was nearly ice-free. Images recently released by NASA show a dearth of frost in the polar north.
In recent years, the continuing disappearance of Arctic sea ice have increased projections for a new international trade route in the Arctic. A United States Department of Transportation task force released a report last May entitled “A Ten-Year Prioritization of Infrastructure Needs in the U.S. Arctic,” presenting a framework to address Arctic infrastructure gaps.
“As sea ice retreats, the lack of U.S. Arctic infrastructure to support increased maritime activity grows more apparent,” the report noted. “Some vessels…currently operating in the Arctic are neither designed nor equipped for hazardous Arctic conditions.”
The report put forward 43 recommendations for the development of necessary elements of a comprehensive Arctic maritime transportation system.
For most of the year, the Northwest Passage is frozen and impassible. But during the summer months, the ice melts and breaks up to varying degrees.
“It was a warm winter and spring,” said NASA sea ice scientist Walt Meier. “That means that the seasonal ice—ice that grew since the end of last summer, and the type found throughout most of the Passage—is thinner than normal. Thinner ice can melt more easily, break up, and move out of the channels.”
In NASA images, a scattering of broken ice is visible just east of Victoria Island. “It looks pretty thin and disintegrating,” Meier said. “I think an ice-strengthened ship could get through without too much trouble.”
At some point in almost every summer since 2007, conditions along the southern passage have been fairly open. There have been exceptions: an image captured in August 2013 shows that ice that year remained relatively extensive.
What’s left of the ice in 2016 is opening up fast, according to Meier, who expects the Northwest Passage will open up completely in the next couple of weeks. A strong Arctic cyclone appears to be approaching the archipelago which could push the ice around and further open up still-blocked channels. Or, it could have the opposite effect and push in ice from the north.
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