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Arctic Ice Melt
Opens Northwest Passage

JAMEY KEATEN / AP 15sep2007

 

Arctic Ice Melt Opens Northwest Passage JAMEY KEATEN / AP 15sep2007

Envisat ASAR mosaic of the Arctic Ocean for early September 2007, clearly showing the most direct route of the Northwest Passage open (orange line) and the Northeast passage only partially blocked (blue line). The dark gray colour represents the ice-free areas, while green represents areas with sea ice.  Credits: ESA

 

PARIS Arctic ice has shrunk to the lowest level on record, new satellite images show, raising the possibility that the Northwest Passage that eluded famous explorers will become an open shipping lane.

The European Space Agency said nearly 200 satellite photos this month taken together showed an ice-free passage along northern Canada, Alaska and Greenland, and ice retreating to its lowest level since such images were first taken in 1978.

The waters are exposing unexplored resources, and vessels could trim thousands of miles from Europe to Asia by bypassing the Panama Canal. The seasonal ebb and flow of ice levels has already opened up a slim summer window for ships.

Leif Toudal Pedersen, of the Danish National Space Center, said that Arctic ice has shrunk to some 1 million square miles. The previous low was 1.5 million square miles, in 2005.

"The strong reduction in just one year certainly raises flags that the ice (in summer) may disappear much sooner than expected," Pedersen said in an ESA statement posted on its Web site Friday.

Pedersen said the extreme retreat this year suggested the passage could fully open sooner than expected but ESA did not say when that might be. Efforts to contact ESA officials in Paris and Noordwik, the Netherlands, were unsuccessful Saturday.

A U.N. panel on climate change has predicted that polar regions could be virtually free of ice by the summer of 2070 because of rising temperatures and sea ice decline, ESA noted.

Russia, Norway, Denmark, Canada and the United States are among countries in a race to secure rights to the Arctic that heated up last month when Russia sent two small submarines to plant its national flag under the North Pole. A U.S. study has suggested as much as 25 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas could be hidden in the area.

Environmentalists fear increased maritime traffic and efforts to tap natural resources in the area could one day lead to oil spills and harm regional wildlife.

Until now, the passage has been expected to remain closed even during reduced ice cover by multiyear ice pack sea ice that remains through one or more summers, ESA said.

Researcher Claes Ragner of Norway's Fridtjof Nansen Institute, which works on Arctic environmental and political issues, said for now, the new opening has only symbolic meaning for the future of sea transport.

"Routes between Scandinavia and Japan could be almost halved, and a stable and reliable route would mean a lot to certain regions," he said by phone. But even if the passage is opening up and polar ice continues to melt, it will take years for such routes to be regular, he said.

"It won't be ice-free all year around and it won't be a stable route all year," Ragner said. "The greatest wish for sea transportation is streamlined and stable routes."

"Shorter transport routes means less pollution if you can ship products from A to B on the shortest route," he said, "but the fact that the polar ice is melting away is not good for the world in that we're losing the Arctic and the animal life there."

The opening observed this week was not the most direct waterway, ESA said. That would be through northern Canada along the coast of Siberia, which remains partially blocked.

Associated Press Writer Louise Nordstrom in Stockholm, Sweden, contributed to this report.

source: 15sep2007


Arctic Ice Melt Opens Northwest Passage

Arctic ice retreats to new low, possibly opening Northwest Passage

Canadian Press 15sep2007

 

PARIS Arctic ice coverage has receded to record lows, the European Space Agency said, raising the prospect of greater maritime traffic through the long-sought waterway known as the Northwest Passage.

Satellite images this week showed Arctic ice cover fell to the lowest level since scientists started collecting such information in 1978, according to a statement on the agency's website Saturday.

Many experts believe global warming is to blame for melting the passage. The waters are exposing unexplored resources, and vessels could trim thousands of kilometres from Europe to Asia compared with the current routes through the Panama Canal.

According to one estimate, the Northwest Passage is 7,000 kilometres shorter than the 23,000-kilometre Panama Canal route. It is also shorter than the 21,000-kilometre Suez Canal route to Asia.

Ice has retreated to about three million square kilometres, Leif Pedersen of the Danish National Space Centre, said in the statement. ESA said the previous low was four million square kilometres back in 2005.

"There has been a reduction of the ice cover over the last 10 years of about 100,000 square kilometres per year on average, so a drop of one million square kilometres in just one year is extreme," he said.

Ice levels in the Arctic ebb and flow with the seasons, allowing for intermittent traffic between Europe and Asia across northern Canada - a route explorers and traders have long dreamt could open fully.

Environmentalists fear increased maritime traffic and efforts to tap natural resources in the area could one day lead to oil spills and harm regional wildlife.

Pedersen said the extreme retreat this year suggested the passage could fully open sooner than expected - but ESA did not say when that might be. Efforts to contact ESA officials in Paris and Noordwik, Netherlands, were unsuccessful.

Until now, the passage has been expected to remain closed even during reduced ice cover by multiyear ice pack - sea ice that remains through one or more summers, ESA said.

With ice levels shrinking, some countries have jockeyed for claims over the passage under the North Pole, which is also a potential oil-producing region.

The race heated up last month when Russia sent two small submarines to plant a tiny national flag under the North Pole in August, and Canada announced plans to build a new army training centre and a deep-water port in the North.

Denmark, Norway and the United States also have claims in the vast region.

Under international law, the five countries control an economic zone within 320 kilometres of their continental shelf. But the definition of the limits of that shelf are in dispute.

Researcher Claes Ragner of Norway's Fridtjof Nansen Institute, which works with environmental and political issues over the Arctic, said that, for the time being, the new opening has only symbolic meaning for the future of sea transport.

"Routes between Scandinavia and Japan could be almost halved, and a stable and reliable route would mean a lot to certain regions," he said by telephone.

But even if the passage is opening up and polar ice continues to melt, it will take years for such routes to be practicable, according to Ragner.

"It won't be ice-free all year around and it won't be a stable route all year," he said. "The greatest wish for sea transportation is streamlined and stable routes."

"Shorter transport routes means less pollution if you can ship products from A to B on the shortest route, but the fact that the polar ice is melting away is not good for the world in that we're losing the Arctic and the animal life there," Ragner added.

Arctic sea ice naturally extends its surface coverage each winter in the Northern Hemisphere, and recedes each summer, ESA said, but the overall loss has increased since satellite records were begun in 1978.

The opening observed this week was not the most direct waterway, ESA said. That would be through northern Canada along the coast of Siberia, which remains partially blocked.

source: 15sep2007


Canada to be Forced to
Boost Arctic Security,
Expert Says

WILLIAM LIN & DAVID PUGLIESE / Ottawa Citizen / Agence France-Presse 15sep2007

 

The Northwest Passage, the historically impassable sea route, has now fully opened due to record shrinkage of sea ice, and one leading Arctic expert says that could bring a flood of problems to Canada.

The European Space Agency yesterday released a mosaic of images, taken in early September by a radar aboard its Envisat satellite, showing that ice retreat in the Arctic had reached record levels since satellite monitoring began in 1978.

"We have seen the ice-covered area drop to just around three million square kilometres, which is about one million square kilometres less than the previous minima of 2005 and 2006," said Leif Toudal Pedersen of the Danish National Space Centre.

"There has been a reduction of the ice cover over the last 10 years of about 100,000 square kilometres per year on average, so a drop of one million square kilometres in just one year is extreme."

The passage's opening will mean more vessels attempting to traverse Canada's Arctic waters, presenting a host of future problems for the country, said Michael Byers, a Canadian international law and Arctic expert.

As traffic increases in the passage, Canada will have no choice but to shore up security in the region, said Mr. Byers of the University of British Columbia.

"We're talking about Canada's longest coastline, and almost no policing presence there," he said.

Just last month at the North American leaders' summit in Montebello, U.S. President George W. Bush praised Prime Minister Stephen Harper's recent commitment to boost its military presence in the Arctic, and said the U.S. accepts Canadian sovereignty over the Arctic islands, however, he restated U.S. claims -- contrary to Canada's view -- that the Northwest Passage is an international waterway

Mr. Bush made it clear he was not persuaded by the federal government's claim of sovereignty over the passage, despite that declaration getting an earlier nod of approval from Paul Cellucci, the former U.S. ambassador to Canada.

The Conservative government announced in early July it will be spending more than $3 billion on new ships to patrol the Arctic.

"Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty over the Arctic," Mr. Harper said at the time. "We either use it or lose it. And make no mistake, this government intends to use it."

While the U.S. might worry about terrorists entering through the passage, Mr. Byers said he is concerned with the smuggling of drugs, guns and people.

Also, the increasing number of commercial ships entering the passage carries an environmental risk, he said.

"I lost sleep about the prospects of an Exxon Valdez-type accident in Canada's Arctic," he said.

While most large shipping companies might not pose problems, it's a rogue oil tanker that isn't complying with Canadian environmental laws that might try to enter without notification, he said.

"The question then comes, do we arrest that vessel and risk an international dispute with (a country) or do we let it go through? And if we let it go through, we undermine our sovereignty."

The most direct route of the Northwest Passage across northern Canada is "fully navigable," while the Northeast Passage along the Siberian coast "remains only partially blocked," the European Space Agency said.

The previous record low was in 2005, when the Arctic area covered by sea ice was four million square kilometres. Even then, the most direct Northwest Passage did not become fully open, the space agency said.

On Aug. 10, U.S. Arctic specialist William Chapman, of the University of Illinois, said Arctic sea ice cover had already plunged to the lowest levels measured, 30 days before the normal point of the annual minimum.

Mr. Byers flew over the Northwest Passage two weeks ago and realized just how little ice there was.

"I was terrified by what I saw," he said. "Climate change is accelerating much faster than anyone had feared."

The melting of Arctic ice is not only a regional problem, Mr. Byers argued, but one that will affect global ocean currents and weather patterns.

In a UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report issued this year, the group predicted the Arctic would be virtually ice-free by mid-2070; other experts believe this could happen as soon as 2040, driven by a phenomenon called albedo.

Albedo is the reflectivity of light. Because sea ice has a bright surface, the majority of solar energy that strikes it is reflected back into space.

When sea ice melts, the dark-coloured ocean surface is exposed. Solar energy is then absorbed by the sea rather than reflected, so the oceans get warmer and temperatures rise, thus making it difficult for new ice to form.

source: 15sep2007

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