Monday, July 20, 2015

Will Arctic Northwest Passage Be Ice Free By Late July in 2015?

The search for a shorter path from the Atlantic to the Pacific (and vice versa) captivated 19th century explorers. Avoiding the long and treacherous trip around the horns of Africa and South America offered huge saving in the time and cost of a voyage. However, from a navigation standpoint, the discovery of the Northeast Passage and John Rae's 1848 discovery of the Northwest Passage had little practical value during the 19th Century, as ice blocked the routes.

Remarkably, it appears that the Northeast Passage may be ice free by the end of July 2015, based on images posted by the National Snow and Ice Data Center. The early melting of the sea ice that usually blocks the Northeast Passage is a result of the warming of the Arctic. If the sea ice along the Northeast Passage continues to melt as rapidly as it has over the past week, it may be the earliest in the summer during recorded history that this route has been ice free and navigable without the need for an icebreaker.

Northeast Passage in Red

According to Jeff Masters "A large area of high pressure that has set up shop north of Alaska is expected to persist for the remainder of July, and is likely to bring sunny skies and a warm flow of air into the Arctic that will lead to rapid ice loss in the coming weeks"

As shown in the image below, the Northeast Passage is on the verge of becoming ice free (as of July 19, 2015).

 Sea Ice Extent

Regardless of whether 2015 is a record setting year for earliest opening of the Northeast Passage, the rapid ice melt provides another indication that we live on a warming planet. It may only be a matter of decades before the Northwest and Northeast Passages through the Arctic are navigable from August through October.