Sunday, September 5, 2010

Wide Open in the Arctic

I thought I knew something about football from all the amateur games I’d watched, but when I started watching professional football I had to relearn a lot of what I knew. For example, an NFL receiver can be “open,” ready to receive a pass, with a defender just inches away, if the defender’s head is turned the wrong direction. He is “wide open,” able to receive a pass uncontested, if the nearest defender is more than an arm’s length away. These are distances so small it’s hard for the untrained viewer to pick them out on the television screen, but a football fan can see the difference.

I’m having to learn a similar kind of distinction when looking at shipping lanes in the Arctic Ocean. If I were on a cargo ship, I would want almost no ice in sight. To me, that would be an open shipping lane. I look at the ice maps, and I say that the Parry Channel and the Siberian coast might be open. But of course, I’m not qualified to navigate a ship of any kind. Reports from actual cargo ships making the trip in the second half of August have said that both passages were wide open.

How can this be? To begin with, as I’ve learned, much of the ice in the Arctic Ocean is too thin to matter, too thin to represent an obstacle to a cargo ship. If ice is just a few inches thick, a cargo ship can go through it as easily as it goes through water. At the same time, some of the areas of ice include large patches of open water that a ship can steer through. And of course, the Arctic Ocean is much larger than the map, so a tiny opening on the map is miles wide when a ship is passing through.

I had imagined that the beginning of routine cargo traffic across the Arctic Ocean would be a bigger media event than it has been. Regardless of the lack of headlines, cargo is crossing the Arctic now, and will continue for the rest of this month, and perhaps every September from this year forward.