Northern Sea Route Partly Blocked Although Sea Ice Near Minimum

Press Release
Wednesday, September 19, 2012
Map courtesy of NSIDC

So far this year only the southern passage has opened despite record low levels of Arctic sea ice.

According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the current extent is 760,000 square kilometers (293,000 square miles) below the previous record minimum extent in the satellite record (4.17 million square kilometers or 1.61 million square miles) which occurred on September 18, 2007. This difference is larger than the size of the state of Texas. The ice extent currently tracks nearly 50% below the 1979 to 2000 average minimum extent.

The situation in the Northwest Passage this year also contrasts with 2007. Both the narrow and shallow southern route used by the late polar explorer Roald Amundsen and the wide and deep northern route through the Parry Channel opened in 2007. This year only the southern route has opened. According to Stephen Howell of the Canadian Ice Service, rapid ice loss occurred in the Parry Channel in July. However, due in part to the August storm , a subsequent influx of multiyear ice from the north has kept at least some of the channel blocked.

These different patterns of ice loss in the sea routes between 2007 and 2012 highlight how a focus on overall total extent can overshadow regional aspects that have important implications. That 2007 was a record low extent at the time meant nothing to a ship trying to traverse the Northern Sea Route; likewise, the new record this year was meaningless to a ship trying to navigate through the Parry Channel.

Conditions in the Chukchi Sea, where Shell has started to drill for oil, provide another example. Shell’s operations were delayed in part because of greater than expected ice cover in the early summer. In the late summer, although passive microwave data showed that the Chukchi Sea was nearly ice-free, small floes of ice threatened Shell’s drilling platform, forcing the company to temporarily cease operations in the Arctic.

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