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Northwest Passage update: Sea ice report

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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

There was more sea ice in the Arctic this summer than in the past two years, contrary to early spring ice forecasts and the longer term trend of melting sea ice.

“Arctic ice is holding in there, with about 20 percent more than in 2007,” Dr Humfrey Melling, a research scientist with Canada’s Institute of Ocean Sciences, told me.

The National Snow and Ice Data Center, a US body, said ice extended just shy of 2 million square miles (5 million sq. kilometres). That is 620,000 square miles (1.6 million sq. kilometres) less than the 30-year average. But there was more ice this September than the record low set in 2007 – about one-third of a million square miles more (2.6 million square kilometres). Last year ranked No. 2.

Ice forecasts early in the year had pointed to conditions that could match those of 2007 and 2008 when vast areas of sea ice melted, leaving the Northwest Passage open.

“Last winter there was an El Nino effect, which meant a colder winter for much of Canada, and the Arctic was very cold. This created thick ice which took longer to melt,” said Bruno Barrette, an ice expert aboard the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Sir Wilfred Laurier. He added that temperatures have remained below average during spring and summer. The Coast Guard invited us onboard for a lovely Sunday lunch while we were in Gjoa Haven, and the visit included an ice briefing.

A report from the Nansen Centre said that in the first half of August ice melted more slowly than during the same period in 2007 and 2008 due to a atmospheric conditions that transported ice toward the Siberian coast and discouraged the southward drift of ice from the Arctic Ocean.

“Therefore there will be no new record minimum in September 2009, but the minimum summer ice extent in 2009 will still be much lower than the 1979 to 2000 average,” the report said.

The Canadian Coast Guard was called upon to assist the sailing yacht Fiona in Peel Sound after the ice closed in on her and raised the boat clear out of the water. The German-flagged Perithia, surrounded by ice, had a polar bear walk up to the boat and try to enter the cockpit. Other boats were pushed onto the beach or had to wait for days for the ice to clear out of their way. Silent Sound was lucky … we had to change our sailing plans , port calls and time schedule to allow for the ice, but we escaped unharmed and completed the passage as planned.

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