The Northwest Passage shipping route confounded explorers from Vitus Bering to James Cook, and Roald Amundsen spent three years cobbling a sea route together, albeit through commercially unnavigable shallow sections and with a tiny boat. But global warming might create what none of them could ever truly find: The European Space Agency took over 200 satellite photos this month that show Arctic sea ice has shrunk to the lowest levels since record keeping began in 1978. The ice is so low that the photos clearly show a viable northwest passage sea route along the coasts of Greenland, Canada, and Alaska.
Sea ice coverage has shrunk to about 1 million square miles, which would enable shipping companies to bypass the Panama Canal and potentially save billions of dollars for a short window during the summer. The route won't remain clear for long and is mostly just symbolic, but it points to an eventual stable shipping route, and an Arctic region completely free of sea ice by 2070.
"Routes between Scandinavia and Japan could be almost halved, and a stable and reliable route would mean a lot to certain regions," said Researcher Claes Ragner of Norway's Fridtjof Nansen Institute. But even if the passage is opening up and polar ice continues to melt, it will take years for such routes to become 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 mean 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."
In the increasingly likely event that all the sea ice disappears, energy advocates and environmentalists can probably expect to clash frequently and intensely. In addition to increased shipping, a U.S. study indicates that perhaps 25 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas reserves might lie under the ecologically diverse but sensitive Arctic ice. The U.S., Denmark, Norway, Canada, and Russia are already gearing up to secure energy rights to the region. (Russia already won the Early-Bird-Jerk Award by sending two submarines last month to plant their flag under the north pole.)
Instead of racing to ship cell phones from Japan to Europe, I think someone should mount a global-warming awareness expedition to be the first to kayak the Northwest Passage this summer. Who's up for it? Anybody?
— Ted Alvarez