Thursday, August 2, 2012

Arctic Shipping 2012: Making It Look Easy

The Arctic shipping season is open early this year.

Freight has already passed through the Northern Sea Route along the coast of Siberia. It was accompanied by a Russian icebreaker, a sensible precaution, though it’s not clear that the icebreaker was really called into action along the way. Meanwhile, according to yesterday’s satellite map, the Northwest Passage is clear from end to end, along all its various alternate routes. More savvy satellite watchers say the Northwest Passage was clear a week ago, though there are some dicey spots, ironically along the Alaska coast where some of last winter’s multi-year ice is still holding on. It was an early and brutal winter in the region of Alaska and Chukotka resulting in an unusual concentration of ice, but the map now shows a strip of open water along the coast. The shipping routes will get more clear as the melt season continues through August and into September.

The NSIDC Arctic ice extent graph is showing a new record low for this time of year. The ice loss is one day ahead of the record pace of 2007, and there is little on the maps to indicate a slowdown ahead. On the contrary, the fact that a big chunk of the central multi-year ice mass moved to the southwest suggests that the rapid melt will continue through August. The pattern of recent years has been that all ice in the southern Arctic Ocean melts away in summer no matter how thick or concentrated it is. The early melt-out in the Northwest Passage also suggests that ice coverage could retreat to the edges of the now smaller central multi-year ice that sits locked to the northern shorelines of Greenland and Ellesmere Island. Notably, the North Pole is at the edge of the landlocked ice and is again this year at risk of melting out.