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Northeast Passage: The anxious wait

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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

Scouting for a way through the sea iceScouting for a way through the sea ice

Yesterday we arrived at Tyrtova Island in the Nordenskjold archipelago and found a sheltered anchorage on the western side, out of danger of drifting ice.  The water temperature is about minus 1, the air a bit cooler. A strong breeze blows constantly to create a wind chill that makes it feel significantly cold.

Our arrival was a welcome break for everyone: we had travelled through broken drift ice all day. Constant vigilance is required to avoid hitting something that could bring the expedition to a premature end. Now we wait for the forecast wind change that will drive the ice away from our route to Cape Chelyuskin and the Laptev Sea (which has been free of ice for about a month already.  We celebrated with a fantastic chicken tikka masala dinner in the cosy saloon and watched some of Fredrik’s fantastic footage shot in Antarctica.

This morning we all realise that this is the cliffhanger moment of the expedition.  Despite all the satellite images and ice breaker reports we simply don’t know if it will be possible to traverse the short stretch of water to an ice free and safe passage eastwards.  We can’t just sit and wait forever for the ice to melt, as there is still a long way to go.  Our best judgement tells us to wait for the wind change, hopefully tomorrow, and then run north east to the Vilkitsky Strait.  But we know it won’t be that simple: the ice moves fast, not always with the wind, and an ice blockage only 50 metres across would stop our progress.

So we wait. Everyone is quietly doing their jobs, or writing, or sleeping, and you can sense the tension.  We all know that global warming is melting the arctic sea ice – that’s why we are here! But the navigational realities have little to do with the loss of 100,000 square kilometres of ice from the arctic ocean each day. We could easily be stopped by some of that fragmenting, melting, ice, drifting in its last days before giving up its identity to the ocean.

This is a different world from that of Nansen, Nordenskjold, and even more recent arctic explorers, when the ice was much thicker, more consistent, and covered a much wider area.  Even recently, for 8 years out of ten since 1980 this area has been covered with ice (see the latest National Snow and Ice Data Centre animation).  Now it’s a new world, an unpredictable world, where all the ice breakers in the world can’t provide a safe passage through the once-frozen sea ice lanscape.  We are well on the way to creating a new ocean and I’m watching it happen.

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