Thursday, March 7, 2013

Cracks in the Ice and the Central Arctic Route

It is a funny time of year to be watching Arctic sea ice. The ice that forms in January and February tends to melt in March and April, making the four months something of a wash. In the last three weeks, though, ice-watchers have been amazed at a network of cracks in the ice that have spread out from Point Barrow to cover almost the entire Arctic Ocean. What does it mean? Beyond the obvious, that even the best ice is not very thick this year, no one knows, because this is something that has not been observed before.

The detail seen here, from March 6, shows a degree of ice breakup not normally seen during freezing conditions in the Arctic Ocean. Ellesmere Island is the dark area in the bottom of the picture. The North Pole is in the thinner ice near the upper right corner of the picture. Some of the thickest remaining ice can be seen, relatively intact, on the left side of the picture. The widest and most visible cracks are 10 kilometers across. The exposed water re-freezes within a few days, but with ice that may not get very thick before it melts away in April or May.

In the meantime, word of the vanishing ice is making its way, if ever so hesitantly, into the mainstream media. A study, covered in Guardian on Monday, proposes that cargo ships will be able to cross the central Arctic eventually. Never mind that the study suggests 2050 as the date. Once the idea gets out there, it is easy enough to change 2050 to 2025, then change 2025 to 2017. There is actually a fair chance that the Central Arctic Route will be open for a week or two this summer, though I will be surprised if cargo ships line up to make the trip. The sunnier Northern Sea Route in September already makes you feel like you are getting away with something, if you are in the cargo business. It will take a few years of getting used to that before freight carriers tire of the Soviet-style paperwork and look for a new way to cut corners. By then, I have a feeling there will be an open ocean waiting for them.