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Northwest Passage: Mirages

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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 first time I saw one I couldn’t believe my eyes. I checked the charts, looked through the binoculars and asked the crew to double check what I was seeing.  A small island had suddenly grown by a few hundred metres, towering high on the horizon miles away.

Then I looked in the other direction and saw more strange sights. Ice floes that wobbled and jumped. Buoys that stood taller than the mountains on the shore.  Bits of ice that stood impossibly high in the water, weaving dancing in the distance. They were mirages on the arctic horizon, and they have become an everyday part of our sailing life.

They can make navigation tricky, as they make things appear far larger and closer than they really are. A low lying island which you expect to be 10 miles away suddenly looks like a mountainous bit of land a few miles distant. Thin ice floes can suddenly look like massive icebergs, making it hard to decide in which direction to sail when you are trying to pick your way through the sea ice.

Dr Chris Pielou, our scientific advisor, told me the Novaya Zemlya Effect happens when a layer of cold air is trapped between warm air above and below it, over a large area.  Light rays become trapped in the layer: once in it, they are bent back upward if they enter the warmer air below, and are bent back downward if the enter the warm air above.

The effect was first recorded in 1596, near the island of Novaya Zemlya in the Siberian Arctic. The image of a ship appeared just above the horizon although it was known to be about 400 km away. We’ve been experiencing the same effect on nearly every sunny day. Another example of the effect is that the sun appears above the horizon earlier than the Nautical Almanac tells you it should.

So, if we tell you we’ve seen ice stacked a thousand miles high and mountains shaped like an hour glass don’t blame us, blame the cold air.

« Northeast Passage: Restocking in Pevek | Northeast Passage: Nearing the Chukchi sea »

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