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Northeast Passage: ICE!!!

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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

We have experienced our first encounter with drifting sea ice, at last, almost 2 weeks after leaving Murmansk.

I came on watch at midnight with a calm sea and wind so we were motoring along. About 1am the wind picked up and we decided to put up the sails.  It was great to be sailing again!  However within 10 minutes I saw something that looked like a yacht on the horizon, sailing towards us.  Unlikely given where we are: there is only one boat within 100km of us!

The ‘yacht’ turned out to be the advance guard of a fleet of icebergs that soon surrounded us. For about an hour the sea was full of pieces of white, brown, and green fragments, some a metre across, some hundreds of metres. The water temperature dropped from 4 degrees to 1.8 in half an hour.

Then they were gone, and only the occasional piece floated past by the end of my watch at 4am.  But this signals the next phase of the expedition when we need constant vigilance: one hit could create a situation we certainly don’t want.

So where does this ice come from?  We have been monitoring a stream of ice moving south from the main polar ‘cap’, down the west coast of Severnaya Zemlya.  It has been slowly breaking up over the last week, and moving west.  There is also ice that has been attached to the islands of several archipelagos in the region that is breaking up and moving with the wind and currents.  Some of the ice we saw tonight was very dirty, often an indication that it has been very near land.

The fact we are seeing ice now is not unusual: at 76 degrees North the sea has typically been frozen for most of the year.  The fact we have got so far already is in itself a feat.  From now on our progress will be determined not by the ‘big picture’ melting of the arctic ocean, but by the vagaries of the weather and drift patterns of ice around and between the islands near Cape Chelyuskin.

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