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Northeast Passage: Reflections

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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 Neil Hamilton


Google Map showing the location of Tiksi, a port settlement in Bulunsky Ulus of the Sakha Republic, RussiaGoogle Map showing the location of Tiksi, a port settlement in Bulunsky Ulus of the Sakha Republic, Russia

This will be my last blog from ‘Explorer of Sweden’ as I leave the boat tomorrow morning at Tiksi, and will be replaced by Geoff York a day later.  I thought therefore that I should reflect on what I have seen and learned, and what lessons others may find useful.

The trip has been easier than I expected, much easier.  Some of this can be put down to the professionalism of Ola and the team, but the reality is that we have had dream conditions.  The sea has been completely calm (so calm in fact that we could not sail for much of the way and had to use the motor), the weather warm (we had days of 15 degrees at 75 North!), and there has been only one short episode of sea ice.  This has added up to a much more relaxed trip that anybody anticipated.

The amount of ice we have seen so far is exactly what I had anticipated, a short traverse across Cape Chelyuskin.  This is a massive tragedy:  The entire expanse of the Barents, Kara, and Laptev seas is completely ice free this summer.  We are certain to come very close to breaking the all time record low of 2007 that shocked the world.  I hope this puts to rest, at long long last, the spurious and unsupportable claims of the sceptics once and for all.  It’s too late for obfuscation and ‘half truths’ now, we have a real challenge to address.

Beyond the sea ice, we have also seen unmistakable evidence of the effects of melting permafrost where we landed, the landslides, slips, and coastal erosion all exposing huge slabs of underground ice.  I expect Geoff will see a lot more of this as the boat proceeds westwards.

The arctic seas are much, much emptier than I expected. You really feel alone!  If you exclude the Barents sea, there simply is no shipping beyond a couple of coastal supply ships, two ice breakers, a tiny number of research vessels, and the Norilsk nickel transport form Dudinka. Oh yes, and the eight private  vessels making the transit of the North Esst Passage this summer.  This lack of shipping partly reflects the vast unpopulated spaces of the Russian north, but also the fact that this is a ‘new sea’: a place where shipping could not pass on a systematic basis until now.  When you look at the maps and charts, the settlements are many many hundreds of kilometres apart, and when you land you know that you are a very long way from anywhere.

Finally, I feel optimistic that we can make a difference to whate is happening here.  The damage can be repaired, the ice can return, if we reduce carbon emissions at home.  The consequences of failing to do this break my heart. The Arctic is the greatest wake up call we have ever had.

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