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Northeast Passage: Open water

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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 Geoff York

Midnight and it is time for my first watch with Captain Anders. The crew rotates in the wheelhouse every 4 hours and we have the quiet early morning and mid day shifts. As I am already jetlagged from travel, it is actually a good chance to start a new schedule. The night is overcast and we are cruising through light swells that gently rock the boat. The boat is heading NE towards the New Siberian Islands that separate the Laptev and Chukchi Seas. It is twilight and we are just far enough from shore that it is invisible to our passing. The morning passes without incident and I am soon asleep in my forward berth after we hand off the watch at 4 AM.

I awake to the smell of lunch and stagger up top for a coffee before my next watch at noon. The water temperature has dropped in the past 7 hours from 5.8 to 2.5 C. We soon see why as a patch of drift ice appears off the bow and to the north. We are also back in the clearer, cooler waters of the Laptev and away from the fresh water influence of the Lena River. The bits of ice quickly fades and we are back to cruising open water.

Open water as far as the eye can see in all directions. This is remarkably different from my first boat trip in arctic waters during the summer of 1991. I was working a small research vessel in the Beaufort sea north of Alaska looking at the use of near shore waters by adult and juvenile fish. The pack ice was never more than 3 miles from shore and impeded our ability to access certain areas, even trapping us in a bay for 17 days. Now the Beaufort sea is open water much like the Laptev and other arctic seas. These same Beaufort waters, once inaccessible to even small boats, are now undergoing seismic exploration for oil and gas, and active planning for offshore development. Access is no longer an issue. Good news for industry hoping to exploit these new regions, but bad news for the wildlife and people that rely on the sea ice ecosystem as their habitat fades away.

Well it is my turn to make dinner tonight, so I had better start making preparations to feed this hungry crew of 8 guys: whitefish from Tiksi in a red curry sauce. As the temperature remains cold, appetites should remain high!

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