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As Sea Ice Fades, The Arctic Becomes A Nautical Highway

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The timing couldn’t have been better: just a week or so after scientists announced the greatest meltback of Arctic sea ice on record, three adventurers declared they’d slipped through the McClure Strait in Canada’s Arctic Archipelago, thus achieving the first-ever sailboat trek through the northernmost part of the fabled Northwest Passage.

Together, the two events made it abundantly clear that the Arctic is warming dramatically. That in turn could pose great risks to Arctic wildlife, accelerate warming elsewhere on the planet, trigger the release of greenhouse gases frozen in the permafrost and sea floor, and disrupt weather patterns around the world.

Even as the single-masted Belzebub II completed its epic journey, however, another ship was quietly making its own Arctic crossing even further north, foreshadowing yet another looming threat posed by melting ice: the rapid industrialization of the Arctic.

The Chinese icebreaker Xuelong, or Snow Dragon.
Credit: antarctica.gov.au

The Chinese icebreaker Xuelong, or Snow Dragon, had already traversed the Northeast Passage, along the coast of Siberia; now it was headed back to China straight through the middle of the Arctic Ocean. It was taking a shortcut more or less right over the North Pole — and having virtually no trouble doing so.

If ships can reliably navigate this so-called Central Arctic Shipping Route, it could shave up to 8,000 miles off the journey from Shanghai to Europe, slashing transport costs. And if the ice continues to melt, that’s exactly what’s likely to happen.

Even as recently as a decade ago, such a passage would have been unthinkable. You could get to the North Pole on a nuclear-powered icebreaker, but a conventional icebreaker like the Xuelong could never smash its way through ice that could be 10 feet thick or more.

The Arctic has been steadily warming, however, largely due to heat-trapping greenhouse gases — a warming that’s faster there than in other parts of the world because open ocean absorbs solar energy, leading to progressively thinner and less widespread ice at the end of the summer.

But the fact that ice is getting thinner is only part of the story, according to David Barber, a sea-ice researcher at the University of Manitoba.

Back in 2010, Barber said in a telephone interview, “we were out on the Beaufort Sea, in ice that the satellites were telling us should be thick, multi-year ice” — that is, solid ice that has added more and more layers during the winter over many seasons. It was thick, all right, but it was also riddled with holes — “like Swiss cheese,” he said at the time. The ice was so rotten that his research icebreaker could move through regions that should have stopped it in its tracks.

The Belzebub II. 
Credit: Belzebub2.com

That same year, Barber spent some time on a Chinese icebreaker as well, when the ship headed due north, the story was the same: the ship, which should have ground to a halt hundreds of miles from the North Pole, made it nearly all the way. “They only stopped because they were afraid they’d use up too much fuel,” he said.

This year, the Xuelong is having an even easier time of it; in theory, merchant vessels could be following the path it’s cutting through the remaining ice. Over the next several years, the theory is likely to become reality, as the ice gets even weaker.

“When I began my career in the early 1980’s,” Barber said, “about 80 percent of the ice was multi-year; now it’s down around 12 percent. It’s an endangered species.”  

The Northwest Passage has been navigable off and on for several years already; the Northeast Passage, meanwhile, has been mostly navigable, since prevailing winds tend to blow ice away from Siberia and toward the Canadian Arctic.

The seasonal opening of these coastal waters has already whetted the appetites of mineral-exploration and energy companies who want to exploit the region’s enormous mineral and energy resources; now it’s the turn of shippers trying to save money.

“There’s tremendous pressure from industry,” Barber said, “but the whole situation is volatile because large, dangerous icebergs are now floating freely in places where they once would have been frozen solid.” Moreover, he said, “it’s happening faster than scientists can figure out what’s going on.”

In its latest major report, the IPCC projected that the Arctic Ocean would be largely ice-free by somewhere between 2050 and 2100.

Now some scientists think it could happen within the next 15-30 years, and as the ice recedes and ships, drilling rigs and mining operations begin to move into the region with the threat of oil spills and other forms of pollution, the largely pristine North polar environment is virtually certain to suffer. 

Comments

By bob barnett (richmond va 23225)
on September 7th, 2012

If one applies the most common, commercial property of CO2 to climate change, it is all clear and apparent as well as ominous. CO2 likes water more than water likes water whence beverage carbonation, e.g., beer and pop. Increased atmospheric CO2 means water will be soaked up which causes droughts followed by later, downwind deluges when the saturated air suddenly releases water after aggitation.

For the polar icecap, increased CO2 speeds up ice melt by soaking up water while serving as a dessicating barrier between upper atmospheric moisture and the ground which prevents replenishing the icecap in the winter—see Polar Timebomb.

The role of CO2 barriers between upper atmosphere and ground is very evident in the US 2012 Mid-west drought where massive, mega-fires in the Rocky Mountains generated broad, ground-covering smog of CO2 that dessicated the ground while preventing upper atmosphere moisture from reaching the ground.

The above mentioned CO2 matrix (release, dessication and deluge) is what has caused the multi-decade Horn of Africa drought which is downwind from the Saudi Peninsula where over seven billion cubic feet of natural gas is burned each day. This vast plume of CO2 sucks up water on the Horn causing the destruction of farmland which has led to the social, economic and political chaos.

If you want to understand the hidden force worsening global warming faster than scientists and computers project, visit youtube.com/globaldying or visit timism.com/GlobalDying/Index.htm.

The CO2 matrix has been documented at timism.com\globaldying\Index.htm for the droughts in Central Asia, China, Brazil, Russia as well as the historical US Dustbowls (1930’s and 1950’s)

You can do your readers and yourself a great service by encouraging readers to visit the aforementioned youtube site as well as timism.com. I hope your eventual “mental earthquakes” will not deter you from an objective, full viewing/readeing of the documentation of what is not global warming but global dying. We don’t have CO2 footprints but CO2 sinning.


best wishes,

bob barnett

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By Massimo Roscio (I-20025 LEGNANO MI)
on September 10th, 2012

Just a remark about Horn-of-Africa drought: a team of British researchers has discovered that lake Tana in Ethiopia became completely dry around 15000 BC; it came back to normal levels after 12700 BC, a 2300-year period when last glaciation was ending but still in effect and CO2 was below 280 ppm.
Such a severe drought never happened in subsequent warm periods; only around 2200 BC another one harsh enough to put Egypt to its knees, but not to dry lake Tana completely, happened again.
Interactions between CO2 and termperature on one side, precipitations on the other, are highly non-linear; much depends on shifting athmospheric and sea currents.
Ref:
http://planetearth.nerc.ac.uk/news/story.aspx?id=1019
http://www.nerc.ac.uk/publications/planetearth/2008/spring/spr08-nile.pdf
regards
Massimo

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By Christian Marcussen (DK1350 Copenhagen)
on September 15th, 2012

Just for your information: The Xuelong never made it to the North Pole this year. The northernmost position reported by Xuelong was 87 39’ 45.0"N 123 38’ 37.0"E on August. 30 before the ship returned towards China. The Swedish icebreaker Oden reached the North Pole on August, 22 (see more on http://a76.dk/greenland_uk/north_uk/gr_n_expeditions_uk/lomrog_2012_uk/4_field-report.html).
Best regards
Christian Marcussen

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