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Opening the fabled Northwest Passage: triumph or tragedy?

A combination of 33-year satellite records, measurements made over the past century, and long-term proxy analysis suggests Arctic sea ice may be at its lowest level for more than 1,000 years. According…

Will we ultimately see 2012 as triumphant, or as just one step in an emerging global tragedy? Jenny Varley

A combination of 33-year satellite records, measurements made over the past century, and long-term proxy analysis suggests Arctic sea ice may be at its lowest level for more than 1,000 years.

According to the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) figures for August 26 2012, Arctic sea ice cover dropped to less than 4 million square kilometres, tracking below the previous minimum in 2007 and 45% down on the levels recorded in the 1980s and 1990s.

The rate of decline has averaged out at 10.4% per decade.

This massive increase in the amount of ice-free ocean allowed three courageous adventurers to take the flimsy 9.3m fiberglass sloop Belzebub II on a three-month west/east transit of the fabled Northwest Passage, which they completed a short time ago.

Sailing via the M’Clure Strait (first traversed by icebreakers in the 1990s) to the Beaufort Sea, their voyage was not without risk. But they endured nothing like the hardships experienced by Roald Amundsen and his crew of six when they made the very first the east/west NW Passage crossing in 1903-6.

The Gjøa, Amundsen’s 21m, shallow-draft wooden herring boat, was frozen in for two years causing fears that, like the ice-fortified bomb-ships Erebus and Terror and the 129 men of the 1850s Franklin Expedition, they had all been lost.

With iron reinforcement fore and aft, a retractable rudder, and clad in Douglas fir covered by Australian ironwood, the 32m Royal Canadian Mounted Police Schooner St Roch (St Rock) reversed Amundsen’s route to complete a difficult 28-month west/east passage in 1942.

The crew used explosives to break up ice floes and, protected by the rounded hull that allowed the ship to be forced up by encroaching ice, they were frozen in for ten months. That technology was used earlier in Fridtjof Nansen’s Fram, the ship that took Roald Amundsen to Antarctica for his successful 1912 conquest of the South Pole.

Many will have seen Australian Frank Hurleys’ dramatic movie and still photographs of Ernest Shackleton’s 1915 Anatarctic expedition ship, the Endurance, being crushed to matchwood in an ice-vice. Though immensely strong, the Endurance was designed to force through floe ice and had a conventional, deep hull.

After the installation of a much more powerful engine, the St Roch made a much faster east/west transit using a more northerly route, though again with great difficulty due to encountering very heavy ice conditions.

Still, she was the first ship to traverse the Northwest Passage both ways, and the first to make the crossing in one season. The St Roch can be seen at the Vancouver Maritime Museum while, after being displayed for many years in San Francisco (where she was left by Amundsen) and then in Norway, a new home is being built for the Gjøa at the Fram Museum in Oslo. The watery graves of her Victorian majesty’s ships Erebus and Terror are yet to be located.

Though they were not icebreakers in the modern sense, these tough, wooden polar vessels endured conditions that would have crushed the deep-keeled Belzebub II like an eggshell.

Much of Amundsen’s transit was only possible because of the Gjøa’s shallow draft while, even in wartime, there was no suggestion that the St Roch had discovered a route that could be used by naval or supply ships.

With decreasing Arctic sea ice, many ships and smaller boats have made the transit over the past two decades. Now, it seems that the Northwest Passage will soon be officially open for summer business.

Maybe we should consider 2012 as a banner year for the Arctic, just as 1912 marked both triumph (Amundsen) and tragedy (Scott) in the annals of Antarctic exploration.

If though, we accept the majority scientific view that what is happening now with Arctic sea ice may be a bellwether of anthropogenic warming, will we ultimately see 2012 as triumphant, or as just one step in an emerging global tragedy?

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25 Comments sorted by

  1. John Coochey

    Mr

    Nice montage about arctic exploration if a little inaccurate but it would have been nice to see some actual facts on ice extent. I recall similar statements being made circa 1926 regarding ice extent and the reason the St Roch took so long to make the easterly was that it was the worse winter in decades. The later voyage was made in much more favorable circumstances. Why not throw in the first and only tanker to make the passage or the fact that Franklin's expedition actually completed he passage the last survivors dying at Fugitive Cove despite resorting to cannibalism? I also seem to recall over a decade ago two men made the Westerly in a Hobie Cat which is an open boat so what exactly is proved?

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    1. Peter C. Doherty

      Laureate Professor at University of Melbourne

      In reply to John Coochey

      There wasn't room to cover everything, and it is a fascinating history. I searched out the Hobie Cat: these guys made the crossing over 3 separate summers from 1986-8. My perception is that there's been a progressive fall (spiking up and down) over the past decades. This year was, I believe, the first to dip below the previous minimum for 2007. Much of the climate change data looks like that to me: an angled snake! The visual presentations that can be accessed via http://nsidc.org/data/seaice_index/ are fascinating. As a non climate scientist, I just have to accept that these are accurate representations of primary data. If only we had satellite records that went back 1,000 years!

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    2. Byron Smith
      Byron Smith is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Ministry assistant, ecologcal ethicist and PhD candidate at University of Edinburgh

      In reply to Peter C. Doherty

      We have proxy records going back 1,450 years.
      http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v479/n7374/full/nature10581.html

      And now take figure 3a and add in the melt up to 2012, where the late summer extent is down below 4 million. Check the scale on the y-axis and see just where those recent data points fall.

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    3. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to Byron Smith

      Lots of evidence of pre-Inuit penetration to far more northern latitudes from the 13th century and before
      Bathhurst island
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brooman_Point_Village
      Karluck Island in Crozier Straight
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crozier_Strait
      Ellesmere Island
      http://arctic.synergiesprairies.ca/arctic/index.php/arctic/article/view/2705
      "During the early part of August 1977, a survey of archaeological sites was carried out in the Bache Peninsula region on the east coast of Ellesmere…

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    4. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      When you consider that the Holocene Interglacial Epoch was scheduled to end within a few centuries of present, you realise that the Inuit would have penetrated further north in millenia past.

      This is because all previous interglacial periods are notable for a rapid initial warming followed by a lengthy reversion to glacial conditions; this is simply Pleistocene climate dynamics.

      What's changed? I'd appreciate your perspective on William F Ruddiman's 2003 paper "The Anthropogenic Greenhouse Era Began Thousands of Years Ago", (downloadable from http://stephenschneider.stanford.edu/Publications/PDF_Papers/Ruddiman2003.pdf).

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    5. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to David Arthur

      "When you consider that the Holocene Interglacial Epoch was scheduled to end within a few centuries of present"
      I had no idea there was a timetable. I blame the O'Farrell government, he can't even make the Interglacial Epochs run on time.

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    6. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      Err, thanks for pointing that out.

      "When you consider that the oceanic redissolution of CO2 was leading to such cooling as to cause the Holocene Interglacial Epoch to end within a few centuries of present ..." is more precise.

      Meanwhile, enjoy reading Ruddiman's 2003 paper.

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  2. Peter Kovesi

    Research Professor at The University of Western Australia

    In addition to Belzebub a number of yachts have traversed the North West passage in recent years (though not through the McClure Strait). The yacht Fiona traversed it in 2009 and several other have followed since http://www.yachtfiona.com/northwestpassage2009/northwest2009.htm

    Also of note is Roger Taylor's 2011 voyage to a position 80 degrees north in his 20' yacht Mingming
    http://www.thesimplesailor.com/voyages.html

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  3. Garry Baker

    researcher

    Timely article, however nothing much will be done at a political level until an "event" takes place ... ie: Manhattan Island or Shanghai under a metre of water. Processes simply don't have the impact to motivate humans.

    As for suggestions of the biggest ice loss in a 1000 years. - Well the end of August copy of NewScientist magazine has fairly comprehensive editorial about the Arctic. They say the extent of the change is the worst in 3 million years - most likely 13 million years.

    http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21528802.200-arctic-ice-low-heralds-end-of-3millionyear-cover.html

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  4. Rajan Venkataraman

    Citizen

    Terrific article Prof Doherty - entertaining and informative. And I appreciate the links that you and some of the other commentors have supplied.

    Some may still argue about the cause of this phenomenon and the contribution of human activity. But seeing this and other evidence makes clear that something very profound is changing in this planet's climate. That this will have a major impact on the economies, lifestyles, health and environment of future generations is obvious. It is becoming clearer tht it will have these impacts in our own lifetimes too.
    Thanks again

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  5. Chris O'Neill

    Retired Way Before 70

    "According to the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) figures for August 26 2012, Arctic sea ice cover dropped to less than 4 million square kilometres"

    Judging by the way Arctic sea ice shrinks toward the north coasts of Greenland and Ellesmere Island: http://arctic.atmos.uiuc.edu/cryosphere/NEWIMAGES/arctic.seaice.color.000.png , I'd guess that the North Pole will probably be accessible to ordinary boats when the sea ice extent gets down to 2 million sqkm. This won't be many years now: http://www.ijis.iarc.uaf.edu/en/home/seaice_extent.htm

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  6. Dave McRae

    logged in via Twitter

    Thanks for the article Prof Doherty.

    But no mention of James Cook? Admittedly, I am a huge fan of that amazing captain. I think it would be great if Young Endeavour or similar craft (maybe renamed to Resolution) complete Cook's 3rd voyage when safe, which maybe soon.

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  7. Tim Allman

    Medical Software Developer

    Thanks for the great article. As a Canadian, the Arctic holds a special place in my heart and I can see the current warming as a disaster pure and simple. Locally, things have changed so much that Inuit elders can no longer read the ice and weather. This has resulted in much hardship and some deaths. The irony is that as the Arctic Ocean becomes more accessible, it will be invaded by the oil companies, a positive feedback if ever there was one. The jobs will be welcome but I fear the inevitable oil…

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  8. Peter C. Doherty

    Laureate Professor at University of Melbourne

    Thanks Tim: the fact that we are increasing coal production in Australia and aiming to drill for oil in the Arctic is a pretty clear indication that those with real power in the democracies (along with many voters) are ignorant, in denial and/or barking mad.

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    1. Gerard Dean

      Managing Director

      In reply to Peter C. Doherty

      Hello Professor.

      That is a big statement you made there, '...those with the real power in democracies(along with many voters) are ignorant, in denial and/or barking mad.'

      I will restrict my response to the state of mind of 'voters'. The majority of voters do not deny climate change when polled. The reality is that when time comes to vote, climate change issues are rapidly overtaken by the political beast. The beast says that most of us vote as we always have, with only a small percentage swinging…

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  9. Garry Baker

    researcher

    Peter Doherty and Tim Allman might like to read some of the latest from the NYT (as of 24 hours ago) A first reader, log in procedure might be required, however the end product is well worth a read, given the immediacy of things reported by that august journal

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/19/science/earth/arctic-resources-exposed-by-warming-set-off-competition.html?_r=2&hp

    "" In August, China sent its first ship across the Arctic to Europe and it is lobbying intensely for permanent observer…

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  10. Gerard Dean

    Managing Director

    The article outlines that Arctic sea ice appears to be the lowest in 1000 years with the last 3 decades showing an average 10% reduction per decade.

    The summarising sentence poses the question, "If though, we accept the majority scientific view that what is happening now with Arctic sea ice may be a bellwether of anthropogenic warming, will we ultimately see 2012 as triumphant, or as just one step in an emerging global tragedy?"

    That is an interesting question, because if we do accept the…

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    1. Glenn Tamblyn

      Mechanical Engineer, Director

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      Gerard

      In terms of what we might call the ordinary human usage of the Arctic, it might be a modest net benefit. Shorter shipping routes. milder climates in some of the coldest settlements on Earth. But that is aggregate benefits for the whole human race. The locals will also face some significant problems however. In the climate up their hunting is the primary food source. And some of the key species being hunted will either be under survival pressure - fur seals particularly that bred on the…

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    2. Byron Smith
      Byron Smith is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Ministry assistant, ecologcal ethicist and PhD candidate at University of Edinburgh

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      "The other problems that the 'majority' of science predicts AGW will cause, include less rain, more rain, extreme weather events and rising sea levels, haven't troubled us as yet."

      Just ask US farmers, Indian peasants, African villagers, Moscovites, Pakistanis, Arab governments destabilised or toppled (partially) by food price spikes, Chinese planners struggling with crippling long term water shortages, forestry managers in the west of North America, barge drivers on the Mississippi, residents…

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  11. Peter C. Doherty

    Laureate Professor at University of Melbourne

    I'm an experimentalist, a biologist not a climate scientist. If I were submitting an experimental protocol to a university human or animal ethics committee that stated: we are aiming to embark on a long-term, uncontrolled experiment that has never been done before and has the potential to damage every complex life form on the planet, I think that I might have some difficulty getting approval. Then, if my application went on to say that: no matter what the outcome, this experiment (with an n=1) can…

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  12. Gerard Dean

    Managing Director

    Again, I am confused.

    The article quotes states that, "According to the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) figures for August 26 2012, Arctic sea ice cover dropped to less than 4 million square kilometres, tracking below the previous minimum in 2007 and 45% down on the levels recorded in the 1980s and 1990s."

    Evidently, the same US National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) states that the Antarctic ice cover is at a record high for these same 30 years.

    If the reducing Arctic ice cover is a bellweather for AGW, what is the increasing Antarctic ice cover a bellweather for? AGC?

    Can someone please explain what is going on.

    Thanks

    Gerard Dean

    ,

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  13. Peter C. Doherty

    Laureate Professor at University of Melbourne

    Thanks Gerard, as I understand Antarctica, there's a trend for increased ice mass in the interior (>snowfall) with loss of mass around the edges. The focus is the possible instability of the WAIS and on speculations re tipping points and triggers for collapse eg Bingham RG et al (Nature 487, 468-471, 2012) discoveredf a subglacial basin associated with inland thinning. Others are looking at possible glacier losses that could influence the integrity of the WAIS. As with Greenland, which this year showed surface melting at a higher level than has been recorded for a century or more (is it periodic or will it continue?). There is a lot of uncertainty.
    And I could not agree with you more re the political difficulty of achieving action. But are we going to mimic the "good Germans" of 1933-45 and believe in an invented, alternative reality? Maybe we should all listen to our kids: they'll be increasingly called on to deal with the consequences of our lack of courage and imagination.

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    1. Gerard Dean

      Managing Director

      In reply to Peter C. Doherty

      Thank you Professor

      I will roll on the ice, or more simply put, I will bow to your knowledge on this topic.

      However,your 'good Germans' of 1933-45 line grabbed my attention, so if you can weave in some European inter-war history into your next article, you will have a fan for life. We could start with the enabling act and move from there.

      Thanks

      Gerard Dean

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  14. Peter C. Doherty

    Laureate Professor at University of Melbourne

    Thanks Gerard, Re the moral and ethical dimensions of the climate change issue, I had to fly to Hobart last night and was reading a 2010 book by Australian Catholic priest and author Paul Collins..."Judgment Day: The struggle for life on earth". Though he is hardly an authority on the science, he does point out how at odds Cardinal Pell is with his church and with Rome on this issue, and discusses the position taken by other religious traditions.
    Why do you think that what the informed scientists are saying is wrong on this issue? Unlike some other human activities, science just doesn't work by conspiracy. Another book that is ell worth reading from this perspective is Chris Mooney's "The Republican War on Science", which is a gives a good discussion of delusion and the belief in "invented" realities. I've looked up the publication records of the local climate change denier scientists and, with one possible exception, they are either long retired or very unimpressive.

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