Only a couple of years ago the headline “Northwest Passage Found,” would have been relegated to April Fool’s Day or the August silly season. Now, according to new satellite photos released by the European Space Agency, it’s set to become a reality.
In a recent bulletin the ESA states: “The area covered by sea ice in the Arctic has shrunk to its lowest level this week [Sept.10-14] since satellite measurements began nearly 30 years ago, opening up the Northwest Passage – a long-sought short cut between Europe and Asia that has been historically impassable.”
Leif Toudal Pedersen from the Danish National Space Centre indicated: “We have seen the ice-covered area drop to just around 3 million sq. km [1.8 million square miles], which is about 1 million sq. km [600,000 square miles] less than the previous minima of 2005 and 2006. There has been a reduction of the ice cover over the last 10 years of about 100 000 sq. km [60,000 square miles] per year on average, so a drop of 1 million sq. km in just one year is extreme.
“The strong reduction in just one year certainly raises flags that the ice (in summer) may disappear much sooner than expected and that we urgently need to understand better the processes involved,” he continued.
Arctic sea ice naturally extends its surface coverage each northern winter and recedes each northern summer, but the ESA said the “rate of overall loss since 1978 when satellite records began has accelerated.”
Opening an Arctic sea route between Europe and Asia has extensive implications for shippers, and hence the insurance industry. Actually there are two potential routes – the Northwest Passage, along the coast of Canada and Alaska; and a Northeast Passage along the coast of Russian Siberia, which is still partially blocked by ice. Marine coverage would be the first to address the potential risks of such new routes. But the passage of heavily laden vessels, especially oil tankers, traversing the sensitive Arctic regions would also increase environmental risks.
The ESA indicated that until now the “Northwest Passage has been predicted to remain closed even during reduced ice cover by multi-year ice pack – sea ice that survives one or more summers. However, according to Pedersen, this year’s extreme event has shown the passage may well open sooner than expected.”
The new findings highlight the fact that the Polar Regions “are very sensitive indicators of climate change,” said the bulletin. “The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [www.ipcc.ch] showed these regions are highly vulnerable to rising temperatures and predicted the Arctic would be virtually ice free by the summer of 2070. Still other scientists predict it could become ice free as early as 2040 due to rising temperatures and sea ice decline.”
The FSA explained that “because sea ice has a bright surface, the majority of solar energy that hits it is reflected back into space. When sea ice melts, the dark-colored ocean surface is exposed. Solar energy is then absorbed rather than reflected, so the oceans get warmer and temperatures rise, making it difficult for new ice to form.”
Climate experts have described this as a “tipping point;” i.e. a level where the amount of energy absorbed becomes irreversible. Dr. James Hansen, climate change scientist and director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, made just such an observation in a recent BBC interview (http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/programmes/the_interview.shtml).
The full report is available on the ESA’s web site at: http://www.esa.int.
Source: European Space Agency
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