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Northeast Passage: Welcome to the Kara Sea!

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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

Monday 10th August, midnight.  Position: 72 degrees 23′ N 66 degrees 23′ E

An arctic fulmar.An arctic fulmar.

We’re cruising now through the Kara Seas, a really arctic region which freezes completely each winter.  Between Novaya Zemlya and the Yamal Peninsula, where we are now, the water temperature has dropped to 5.4 degrees and the air temperature is noticeably cooler.  The weather is calm, the sea flat, and the slight breeze from NNW (which doesn’t help sailing!).  No boats on the radar or radio, and few birds: a family or two of curious arctic skuas, and a lone bearded seal we passed earlier today. A seemingly empty place.

This is far from the unknown sea of 100 years ago where both Russian and European ships disappeared here, never to be found.  However, the security is illusory: ahead of us a stream of sea ice from the main body around the North Pole has moved south along the west side of Severnya Zemlya (the archipelago north of the Taimyr peninsula, the northernmost point of Eurasia), blocking the Northeast Passage for 100km or so.  A Russian ice breaker, Yamal, is keeping us informed on developments and we can sea the ice on satellite images each day, but all this technology will be to no avail unless the ice moves by itself.

It’s quite ironic that even in a year which may break new records for ice loss, the Northeast Passage may not yield.  We are sailing to Dickson and then further north as fast as we can to reach the ice edge, as a change in the wind can break up the pack and drift ice really fast, and the passage become clear.  It also highlights the fact that shipping in this region is hazardous despite the loss of ice: conditions change very fast, and ice, even a small amount, can move incredibly quickly into the path of a vessel.  An accident up here can be very costly indeed.

As we move ever closer to the most difficult part of the journey we reflect also on the extraordinary feat that some of the crew have already undertaken: tonight we celebrated the 5000 nautical miles that Ola, Hannibal, and Niklas have sailed since leaving Stockholm in mid June.  This is a very long expedition!

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