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Northeast passage: Why?

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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

Friday 7th August, south eastern Barents Sea, lat 69 degrees 58′ long 47 degrees 09′  Air temperature: about 10, water temp 7.8, wind light from NW.

When you go on an expedition such as this, many people ask you why you want to put up with such discomfort and hardship, a complete removal from the certainty of every day life, and even perhaps danger.  For me the answer is simple: to see what is happening to the environment in this remote (to the western world) region, and to communicate this to the world.

We already know the big picture: the Arctic is melting fast. A new study shows that from 2005-2008, temperatures in the central arctic were 5 C above average. The summer sea ice  has decreased by almost half since the 70s. Significant permafrost melting has already taken place. And we now know that these changes are driven by greenhouse gas emissions.

So the reality is that, due to climate change, it is now possible to challenge the Northeast passage by sailboat, and without the support of an icebreaker. This is perhaps the last time an expedition through the passage is a real challenge. In the future the ever melting ice will make sailing through the passage easier and easier and open it up for increased transport, tourism and resource development in this vulnerable region. Taking the sea ice away from the Arctic will cause impacts all the way through the arctic food web, destabilising a system that is already fragile.

On this journey we will try to bring this unfamiliar world to you and explain why the changes we are seeing are important. With the Copenhagen climate conference approaching fast, and the need for improving the environmental governance of the Arctic ever increasing, our journey comes just in time.

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