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This Is What the Ice-Free Northwest Passage Looks Like

An ice-free Northwest Passage was once the stuff of legend. But it’s now becoming the norm thanks to global warming, and commercial freighters to luxury cruise ships are racing to turn a profit off the newest frontier on earth.

A satellite image taken on Aug. 9 and published by NASA Earth Observatory shows a nearly ice-free path from the North Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. In comparison to 2013, which was a high ice year for the Arctic — at least by modern standards (it was still the sixth-lowest extent on record!) — it’s clear just how dramatic this year is.


Satellite imagery showing the Northwest Passage in 2013, a relatively "icy" year by modern standards, and 2016.
Credit: NASA

It’s not the first time the Northwest Passage has opened up in recorded history — that would be 2007 — but it coincides with a particularly high profile voyage. The Crystal Serenity, a hulking 820-foot, 13 deck cruise ship, set out just last week from Anchorage on a 32-day voyage that will end in New York. It’s the largest ship to ever pass through the Northwest Passage. But with a driving range on board, the cheap berths going for $22,000 and $50,000 emergency evacuation insurance policies required for each passenger, it’s made, shall we say, waves.

The Arctic has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the world, dramatically reshaping the region. Since satellite records began in the late 1970s, Arctic sea ice has disappeared at a rate of 13.4 percent per decade. Older sea ice that’s more resilient to breakup is also on the decline. In 30 years, it’s gone from 20 percent of all Arctic ice pack to just 3 percent.

After a string of record low months, Arctic sea ice decline has slowed a bit. As of August, Arctic sea ice extent is currently at its third lowest extent to date. Researchers have said it’s unlikely to reach 2012’s record-setting low, but it’s right in line with the trend of less and less ice.

The world will continue to warm and ice will continue to melt in the coming decades. That will make the the Northwest Passage as well as other parts of the Arctic more accessible more often. With that, tourism and resource extraction are also likely to become more common. The Crystal Serenity’s operators have already said they’ll be back in 2017 and other ships are likely to follow.

Disappearing ice isn’t just reshaping the physical landscape. The cultural landscape could also see a huge shakeup. The Crystal Serenity will allow passengers to disembark in the remote Inuit community of Ulukhaktok in the Northwest Territories. The number passengers will outnumber the villagers by 4-to-1, according to Slate (which has a particularly biting writeup of the cruise).

It has the potential to bring much-needed money to some of the most remote places in North America and cultural exchange. But how that ripples through the cultural fabric is something that’s yet to be determined.

And that’s to say nothing of the geopolitical struggle between countries looking to cash in on mineral, oil and other riches that have been hidden under ice for all of modern human history. It truly is a brave, new top of the world.

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