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Northwest Passage: Homeward bound through the icebergs

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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 Cameron Dueck

The arctic midnight sun. Photo: WWF / Open Passage Expedition, Dr Tobias NeubergerThe arctic midnight sun. Photo: WWF / Open Passage Expedition, Dr Tobias Neuberger

Silent Sound has crossed the Arctic Circle marking her official transit of the Northwest Passage! We entered the Arctic via the Bering sea two months ago to the day, and since then we’ve sailed some 3,400 nautical miles, seen a lot of ice and learned a lot about the Canadian North.

There are several definitions of where the Northwest Passage begins and ends, but using the Arctic Circle is certainly the most encompassing, so we’ve been holding our breath until we crossed this line. The Arctic Circle (66 30N) marks the lowest latitude at which the midnight sun is ever seen.

We are now sailing down the eastern Baffin Island coast, and we’ve had some stormy weather in recent days. The waves grew to be so big you had to look up to see them, and the wind was so strong we only needed one sail, our smallest one at that. We had waves up to 8m high and winds over 40 knots.

Now that we’re out of the arctic archipelago and into the open sea, we are seeing more icebergs, instead of ice floes. Ice floes are frozen seawater while icebergs are chunks of ice broken off glaciers in the high Arctic. Bergs begin as snow falling on land, which is then compressed into ice. Most of the icebergs in eastern arctic waters, where we are sailing now, are from the Greenland ice sheet. Even though icebergs can be 20 or 30 metres high, most of their volume is below water. Only about one third of their entire volume is visible above water. This means you have to stay well clear of them because they may spread out under water, like an upside down mushroom.

Dr Chris Pielou, our scientific advisor, tells me that icebergs contain vast numbers of very tiny bubbles, air that was trapped among the flakes of the snow from which the ice originated. This is what makes icebergs white. A chunk of berg-ice fizzes if you put it in water as the ice melts and releases these air bubbles.

For the crew of Silent Sound, icebergs are safer than ice floes because they are easier to see. Icebergs can be several stories high, and we can see them from miles away. They look like giant white apartment blocks floating on the ocean, and we can easily avoid them, even at night. Ice floes, however, are low and flat on the water, and are very hard to see. The tricky part comes when small bits of the icebergs break off. These pieces can be as big as a car, and if there are waves on the sea they are very hard to see. If we hit one of these chunks of ice in the dark, there is a good chance we’d sink the boat.

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