With the melting of Arctic Ocean ice, the fabled waterway between Europe and Asia has been open to shipping the past two summers--or has it?
It is said that the Inuit have many words for snow, but when it comes to the Northwest Passage only one type of frozen water matters: multiyear ice. It can slice through the hull of a ship like a knife through butter and it persists in the passage's waters despite unprecedented warming in the Arctic Ocean, thwarting shippers in search of a shortcut between Europe and Asia.
The fabled Northwest Passage has made headlines ever since it thawed last year for the first time. For three centuries the quest for an expedited route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans rivaled today's space race, with European superpowers vying for the prize. Hundreds of sailors and countless expeditions ventured into Canada's Arctic waters, including such naval luminaries as Sir Francis Drake, Captain James Cook and the ill-fated Henry Hudson, who left his name—and lost his life—on the Canadian bay that marks its entrance.
Now, with the Arctic's sea ice shrinking at a rate of 10 percent per decade, this coveted shipping lane has opened for business—but shippers are not rushing to use it. The reason: as fate would have it, global warming appears to also be increasing the amount of potentially deadly multiyear ice chunks lurking in the newly opened pathway.
Sea of Ice
"The thing is, the Canadian Arctic has a totally different ice regime than the Arctic Ocean," says Stephen Howell, a climatologist at the Interdisciplinary Center on Climate Change at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.
In fact, the Canadian Arctic Archipelago acts as a "drain trap" for ship-wrecking multiyear ice, Howell says. This year, for example, when the first-year ice in the passage had melted, it opened the way for multiyear ice (MYI) from the Queen Elizabeth Islands to flow into and clog the Northwest Passage. "We call it a 'MYI invasion' and that's going to be the threat as we transition to an ice-free summertime Arctic," he says.
"The first-year ice, that's sort of like Swiss cheese and you can just plow through it," Howell says. This ice freezes over a winter and is seldom thicker than three feet (one meter). Often, first-year ice melts the summer after it's frozen, but if it doesn't, it becomes thicker the following winter and becomes multiyear ice. "The multiyear ice isn't like Swiss cheese; it's solid and trouble" for ships that collide with it, he says.
"In places it was three meters (nearly 10 feet) thick, but in other places we had a five-meter (16.5-foot) drill bit and we still did not reach the bottom," says Bruno Tremblay, an atmospheric and oceanic scientist at McGill University in Montreal, who was taking ice cores of multiyear ice in the Canadian territory of Nunavut's Viscount Melville Sound last year.
"It's very dangerous," adds Ivana Kubat, an engineer at the National Research Council's Canadian Hydraulics Centre in Ottawa. "If a lower type of vessel hits a piece of multiyear ice, then the vessel can sink depending on the speed and damage." One study showed that multiyear ice was to blame for 74 percent of the damage suffered by ships traveling in the Canadian Arctic between 1976 and 2007.
A Route to Dodge Danger?
Still, there are several ways through the Northwest Passage. The southern, shallow and circuitous route through Peel Sound in Nunavut has been open the past three summers, thanks to warmer temperatures. "That's because that region is mostly first-year ice so with warmer temperatures it melts and it clears," Howell says.
But the northern route, which runs through the McClure Strait in a straight shot from Baffin Bay west of Greenland to the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska, is another story. "Everyone wants the McClure route because it's quicker, it saves money," he says.
The McClure route opened last year, and once before that, in 1998. The European Space Agency reported that the strait opened up this year—open water was visible from space—although it wasn't safe for ship crossings.
"You could in principle navigate through it [this year], avoiding ice floes, and looking for the narrow opening, but the wind can move the ice around within hours so it can be a bit tricky," says Christian Melsheimer, a researcher at the Institute of Environmental Physics at the University of Bremen in Germany, whose research group produces daily maps of sea ice. "Some interpret this as 'the passage is open'; some would rather wait until the ice concentration is near zero percent across the whole passage."
The minimum sea ice cover in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago shrunk by 6.6 percent and the hazardous multiyear ice by 8.6 percent each decade between 1979 and last year. So the amount of sea ice in the region is indeed decreasing, just not in the right way for the Northwest Passage to become a viable alternative to the Panama Canal anytime soon.
"Obviously, if the climate is warming then you would have less first-year ice," says Kubat. "But, based on our analysis of our work, there is ice [in the passage], and with some melt of first-year ice you have more multiyear ice in the shipping lanes."
Climate models predict that even as sea ice disappears from the Arctic Ocean in the summer, the northern part of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago will remain a stronghold for multiyear ice. That means hard, ship-wrecking multiyear ice in all the channels of the Northwest Passage.
"Even in 2040, when there is no more summer ice in the Arctic, the archipelago will still be clogged with ice," Tremblay says.
As a result, ships may be able to sail plumb across the Arctic Ocean to Eurasia before they can navigate the Northwest Passage to ply the waters along North America's Arctic coast safely. But by that time any gains from a shipping shortcut will have been dramatically offset by potential losses elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere due to the effects of climate change. "There are certainly some positive benefits at least in the short term economically," says Walt Meier, a research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo., "but the negative impacts, I think, ultimately outweigh that."
The U.S. Southwest, for instance, will dry up; ocean circulation, jet streams and storm tracks will probably all change, he says. "There definitely will be impacts on all the U.S. and Europe and Asia," Meier notes, "and at least [on] all of the Northern Hemisphere due to the loss of summer sea ice in the Arctic."WEATHER NOTE
Bad Weather Makes for a Long Day
A strong jet stream can add or subtract microseconds from a day
By Keren Blankfeld Schultz
Do you ever feel like some days drag on longer than others? That feeling may be psychological, but actual day length really does fluctuate--by a fraction of a millisecond. (A millisecond is one thousandth of a second)
The length of a day, which is measured by the time it takes Earth to rotate once on its axis, can be measured to an accuracy of about 10 microseconds, or 10 millionths of a second. Earth's rotational rate depends on the distribution of mass across its surface. This includes the roiling aggregation of gases that comprise the atmosphere, the solid earth itself, its fluid core, and the sloshing ocean. For example, when a major earthquake shifts the planet's mass, it can slow or speed the day by as much as a few thousandths of a second.
In fact, the Indonesian Sumatra earthquake in December 2004 that spawned a deadly tsunami moved so much water that it slightly changed our planet's shape and sped its rotation by 2.68 microseconds, or nearly three millionths of a second.
This change in rotational speed, though it is minimal, has been observed for centuries. In 1695 English astronomer Sir Edmund Halley (who also discovered the eponymous periodic comet) hypothesized that the moon was accelerating in its orbit. In reality, Earth's rotation was slowing down, making it appear that the moon was gathering speed.
Since then, scientists have used various methods to measure our planet's rotation, including astronomical devices such as the sundial as well as satellites and lunar observations. And these days scientists have placed thousands of Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers around the world that can track Earth's orientation to within a few millimeters, says geophysicist Richard Gross of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. JPL keeps an in-house database of Earth's rotation dating back to 1962.
Gross says that the most important processes affecting day length are changes in the weather, especially unusual variations in the strength and direction of the winds, which bring on alterations in the global circulation of the atmosphere and ocean. In particular, the vast, high-altitude wind currents known as jet streams, which arise from the differences in temperature between the warm tropics and cooler high latitudes, are responsible for shortening or speeding the day.
Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that global warming may actually speed the day, a fact noted by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In one study published in Geophysical Research Letters in 2007, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany, estimated the mass redistribution resulting from ocean warming would shorten the day by 120 microseconds, or nearly one tenth of a millisecond, over the next two centuries.
Such changes—whether caused by global warming or earthquakes—remain too small to be reliably detected at present, Gross says. After all, there are 86,400 seconds in a 24-hour day and billions of microseconds. Even with GPS, predicting changes in day length remains as difficult as forecasting the weather.
On April 17, 2008, for instance, the day lasted 1.1686 milliseconds longer than the norm According to Gross, the excess varies: Just a few years ago, days were about three milliseconds longer. And all those milliseconds add up: Over the course of a year, scientists estimate that the fluctuations add about a second.
But don't worry, scientists are on top of the phenomenon. The National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colo., occasionally adds a "leap second" to the atomic clocks used to standardize time. The last such update took place on January 1, 2006. There's plenty of time to adjust your calendars: "If the excess length of day continues to be about 1.2 milliseconds, another leap second won't be needed for about three years," Gross wrote in an e-mail.
Coast Guard Rescues 2
ALAMEDA, Calif. - The Coast Guard rescued a man and a woman stranded onboard a 17-foot pleasure craft at Chipps Island. At approximately 6:50 a.m., Coast Guard Sector San Francisco received a cell phone call from the owners of a pleasure craft that their vessel was disabled and run aground. The people reported they were not in distress but were unsure of their location and needed assistance.
From descriptions by the passengers onboard, the Coast Guard was able to determine their location. At approximately 9 a.m., Coast Guard Sector San Francisco lost communication with the stranded people, and immediately launched an HH-65 Dolphin helicopter, from Air Station San Francisco, to the scene. By 9:35 a.m., the helicopter crew arrived on scene, located the stranded passengers and hoisted them to the helicopter.(Coast Guard video shot by Air Station San Francisco)
At approximately 9 a.m., Coast Guard Sector San Francisco lost communication with the stranded people, and immediately launched an HH-65 Dolphin helicopter, from Air Station San Francisco, to the scene. By 9:35 a.m., the helicopter crew arrived on scene, located the stranded passengers and hoisted them to the helicopter.