Thin Ice Blog  

« Northeast Passage: Walrus 1, Bear 0 | Northwest Passage: Halfway home »

Northeast Passage: Weather or climate?

Share this page

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

We have been anchored for a day in the calm and beautiful Bukta Pronchishchevoy, basking in 15 degree temperatures and bright sunshine.  It’s ideal for filming the rarely seen Laptev walrus (which Frederik is doing) and adjusting to the 6 hour time change between Murmansk and Tiksi which we chose to’ implement’ on ‘ship time’ here.

Such amazing weather here, plus the ice we encountered in the Vilkitsky Strait around Cape Chelyuskin, prompted several questions from the crew about how we can say that climate change is affecting the Arctic.  Couldn’t it just be natural variations in weather?

The answer isn’t simple: first you need to understand the difference between climate and weather. Someone once said to me that “climate is what you want, but weather is what you get”. In other words weather is what actually happens on a given day, whereas climate is the long term average of weather over say 20 or more years.  I’m sure you ‘know’ what the summer is supposed to be like at your home, or favourite beach holiday place: in a sense that is climate; but what actually occurs this year at that place is weather.

In the Arctic there is no doubt that the climate is warming. It’s warming faster and further than anywhere else on Earth.  From 60 degrees North (that’s south of Oslo!) to the Pole, the annual average air temperature has risen more than 2 degrees above the long term average. There is absolutely no question that Nordenskjold, Nansen, and all the other explorers undertook their expeditions in a much colder climate than we have. Seasonally it is now also much warmer, particularly in autumn.  And some places in the Arctic, like the region we are entering now, are warming faster than other places.

But the Arctic has another attribute you don’t see in many other places: sea ice, which plays a dramatic role in both weather and climate. Sea ice forms in winter and covers much of the arctic ocean, and more than half of it melts each summer.  The amount that is melting however is increasing dramatically, a fact we know from satellite imagery.  What we experienced at Cape Chelyuskin was the sea ice equivalent of ‘weather’: a small (well, relatively speaking!) stream of ice broken off the pack around Severnaya Zemlya and pushed south by the wind.  I would have been very surprised if there had been no ice there at all, as this is the northernmost continental point on the planet.

This is part of what I explained to my colleagues on the boat, together with an explanation of how we know what is natural and what is man made climate change.  But that can wait for another blog.

« Northeast Passage: Walrus 1, Bear 0 | Northwest Passage: Halfway home »

Related posts