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Northeast Passage: Navigation

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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


Sea ice as seen from the Explorer of SwedenSea ice as seen from the Explorer of Sweden

Being firmly in the most difficult part of the expedition with regard to sea ice, we have been spending considerable time discussing which route to take now.  We receive daily updates of images derived from passive microwave radar (thanks to Georg at the University of Bremen, and DAMOCLES!) plus radio reports and imagery from a couple of Russian icebreakers in the region whenever we want them.  Not that they are necessary at the moment, the sea we are travelling through has less than 10% ice cover, so it barely slows us down and just makes vigilance on our watches more important.

The discussion usually revolves around whether we should wait a little before proceeding into the Vilkitsky Strait region, the main navigation route between Cape Chelyuskin (the northernmost point of Eurasia) and the islands of Zevernaya Zemlya.  So much depends on the wind moving the mobile rotten sea ice (ice in the last stages of melting) that is all that we are seeing.  At present we are at 76 degrees 47 minutes North 100 degrees 12 minutes East heading north east, and are hoping that the change in wind direction from North West to South East will maker our passage easier.  Not that it has been difficult:  you could drive a super tanker up the route we have taken so far!

There is however a blockage in front of us according to the ice charts from the weekend.  My hope is that by the time we reach it, in perhaps 12 hours, it will have cleared and we will have open water all the way to Providenya in the Bering Strait.  We know the Laptev sea has been completely free of ice for perhaps a month, a trend that has been increasingly common for the past few years.  So much for the frozen Arctic Ocean, the impacts of climate change are obvious up here.

So we continue our voyage with binoculars glued to our eyes, trying to work out if that lightish patch on the clouds on the horizon is reflection off ice, or just the dawn. Just a small piece of ice could be dangerous to ‘Explorer’ despite her ice reinforcement. The sea is totally calm (common when there is even a small amount of ice in the water), with no wind.  Beautifully tranquil at 3am.

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