This summer, WWF is helping support two expeditions that will take on some of the world’s most difficult waters, to see first-hand the effects of Arctic climate change. One expedition is sailing across the top of Russia, a journey of 6000 nautical miles through the Northeast Passage, while another is attempting a west to east transit of the Northwest Passage, also by sailing boat, a journey of about 7,000 nautical miles.
Tom Arnbom of Sweden was on the ‘Explorer of Sweden’ though the Northeast Passage, as was WWF Arctic Programme Director Neil Hamilton for much of the trip, replaced near the end by WWF polar bear coordinator Geoff York. On the ‘Silent Sound’ Cameron Dueck of the Open Passage Expedition is filing regular stories from the Northwest passage. Come back for photos and stories throughout the summer, and follow the progress of the boats as they follow in the wake of some of history’s most intrepid explorers.
By Neil Hamilton
After lunch today we reached one of the most isolated, northernmost settlements in the world: Dixon, latitude 73 degrees 30 minutes North, 80 degrees 30 minutes East, the town at the mouth of the mighty Yenesai river. Once a town of 5000, the recent depopulation of the Russian north has left only 500 people to brave the harsh winter and decaying infrastructure. To my knowledge we are the first yacht to visit Dixon since 2002.
What struck all of the ‘Explorer’ team was the incredible welcome we received from everyone we met. Hardship is a daily reality here, and the openness and friendship shown to us was breathtaking. I was taken by the hand in the street by an indigenous Nenets man, and asked to come to his modest apartment to meet his mother. Other people gave us small gifts just to show their friendship. Everybody smiled.
Why is there a town in the Russian Arctic called Dixon? Because Adolf Erik Nordenskjold, the Swede whose footsteps we are retracing, visited the sheltered harbour here in 1875 and named it Port Dixon,after the Gothenburg merchant Oscar Dixon who bankrolled many of his expeditions to the Arctic, convinced that one daythis place would become a great city.
Dixon is an important milestone for this expedition. Not only have we sailed through the extraordinary Kara Sea, ice covered in summer only 10 years ago, but we have reached the last ‘civilised’ place before heading even further north to the most challenging point so far, Cape Chelyuskin. In spite of the enormous melting of the ice, there is a small tongue of sea ice projecting down from the pack to almost reach the coast there. Navigating through this will test the skills of the whole team: you can’t just stop when you get tired!
The Kara Sea
There are some places that cling to the imagination despite never having been there. For me as a young man it was names like Lena delta, Kara Sea, Siberia, Greenland. And now I’m here it is ever more interesting than it was as some sort of dream.
The Kara Sea is a good example. Nothing like I expected, this huge body of water is like no other sea on Earth. Thew first thing you notice is that it is a different colour from the Barents Sea (which is the usual greenish gray in cloudy weather): it’s brown, like tea. In fact it is almost tea, the extract of the enormous Siberian taiga, or coniferous boreal forest, the largest on the planet, brough to the ocean by the huge rivers the Ob, and the Yenesei, which drain the eastern half of Russia to the north. The deltas of these rivers have filled in a large part of the Kara Sea basin and enormous volumes of sediment are still delivered to the ocean each year, particularly during spring.
The second thing you notice is that it isn’t salty, it almost fresh! Thoise same rivers put so much water into the Kara Sea that there is a thick layer of fresh water lying over the top of the salty water. This layer varies from 6 to 15 metres thick on our voyage: you can see it on the echo sounder quite clearly. The fresh water brings with it a hazard to sailors, a vast number of logs from the forests of Siberia which float down the rivers, out to sea, and end up on the coasts of arctic islands like Svalbard.
The third thing you notice is that it’s warm. in contrast to the Barents Sea, the Kara has been up to 9 degrees, typically about 7.5. This warmth comes from the river water, and the fact that this sea is really, really shallow. Apart from the trough along the east coast of Novaya Zemlya (which is up to 500m deep), the Kara is typically 20 to 30 metres deep, which for a sea is incredibly shallow. The water temperature is above the ait temperature often leading to foggy conditions.
All of these things create an environment for life that is completely different from the Barents Sea, for example. There seem to be far fewer fish, and no whales – it’s just too shallow, and there isn’t as much food. We have seen walrus’ basking far from land here, as the depth is a comfortable dive to feed on benthic organisms over huge areas.
Another factor that makes the Kara unique is that in winter it has historically been completely covered with ice. This seems to have changed recently as for about the last decade the Kara has only partly frozen, resulting in a radically different oceanography and ecology. What used to be multi year ice is at best one year old, and it’s much thinner. The onset of melt is occurring earlier each year, the freeze up later. As the Arctic continues to melt the Kara Sea will continue to be at the forefront of change, and what happens here will have implications for not just the Arctic, but for the entire world.