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Northeast Passage: Sea ice floes

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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 comes again all too quickly as I find myself making some strong
coffee for our watch. A coastal freighter has appeared on our radar nearby,
a cargo ship that plies the Lena river and shallow near shore waters between
Tiksi and Vladivostock. It is the only ship we have seen since Tiksi, but as
the summer ice continues its rapid retreat, more ships from countries other
than Russia will demand passage on these seas.

A little after 2 AM we again notice the water temperature dropping quickly,
this time down to -0.8 C. We also begin to see birds and soon after a floe
of drift ice. It stretches across from our north and forces us to slow and
turn south to seek the edge. It was not on the satellite map and while no
match for an ice breaking ship, it is the type of arctic shipping hazard
that could prove disastrous for lesser vessels.  It takes the remainder of
our shift and some of the next to get through and around this obstacle. It
is a pleasant distraction as seas are calm and the visibility good.

Despite the fact that we are losing ice at a rapid rate, there is still a
great deal of it in any given year. As it melts and breaks apart, streams of
drift ice are torn from the main pack and aimlessly wander the northern
seas. This ice is highly mobile and very difficult to track.

This is why WWF is actively pursuing shipping safety on a number of fronts.
We are working with governments and policy bodies to influence the creation
of new arctic governance regimes that would in part set the rules for
international shipping. We are simultaneously pursing regulations around
shipping in the Arctic including compulsory pilotage in some waters and
designation of sensitive marine areas. Lastly we are working to raise
awareness on the current lack of capacity to respond to emergencies in the
Arctic both in terms of rescue and oil spill response/mitigation. A major
shipwreck in the Arctic would not only result in the loss of human life, it
could be an ecological disaster.

We have an opportunity to manage these developments in the Arctic safely,
sustainably, and with proper precautionary planning. With a solid governance
framework and conservation first planning, we can balance the needs of
people and nature.

Speaking of the needs of people, and yes, this will be a recurring theme, it
is time to eat again and I have volunteered to help Niklas in the galley.
Tonight will be a gourmet meal starting with whitefish gravlax (cured on the
boat), cabbage salad, with reindeer and potatoes from Tiksi. I have also
used the last of our apples for a pie and we find a box of vanilla custard
to accompany – quite a dinner! Most of the meals onboard are quite simple and
based on dry goods. Cooking also depends greatly on the sea state and we
know we will have some nights ahead with much less civility.

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