Everyone, even Wired magazine is jumping on the “news” from the European Space Agency that the Northwest Passage is open, right across the Arctic Archipelago. Which is odd because American researchers made the same announcement earlier this summer. We need better media coverage of the effects of climate change than this.
First, the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado had this to say on Sept 4:
Another notable aspect of August 2007 was the opening of the Northwest Passage… Might the Northeast Passage open in the next few weeks?
Five days later the center noted that “The Northwest Passage is still open.” The news was accompanied by satellite photos that clearly show navigable waters through the Archipelago, so it’s not as if there was any doubt about the facts.
And yet, the ESA announcement of Sept. 14 attracted heaps of media attention:
The area covered by sea ice in the Arctic has shrunk to its lowest level this week since satellite measurements began nearly 30 years ago, opening up the Northwest Passage – a long-sought short cut between Europe and Asia that has been historically impassable.
The two agencies use different metrics — the ESA describes the decrease in ice cover to 3 million square kilometres, while the NSIDC talks of a record low ice extent of 4.24 million sq. km, as of Sept. 10. Either way, it’s far below the norm. The historical mean sea ice extent for September is, by comparison, more than 5 million sq. km.
The AP, which converts the ESA numbers somewhat imprecisely to square miles, also manages to confuse the geography of the Arctic, wrapping up its coverage with:
The opening this week was not the most direct waterway, ESA said. That would be through northern Canada along the coast of Siberia, which remains partially blocked.
Which will be news to both Canadians and Russians, I expect.
The important thing that no one is focusing on is the particular route involved in this “Northwest Passage.” The ESA has this map:
All successful navigation of the passage in the past involved a southern turn halfway through, passing south of Victoria and/or Banks islands. This is because of the obvious tendency of more southerly reaches to melt more thoroughly. The fact that there is now a more direct and navigable route to the north of both islands is quite remarkable.
The warming trend 1000 years ago that allowed for the Viking settlement of Greenland and the modern Inuit colonization of the Arctic from Alaska brought with it less summer ice cover, perhaps even as much as what we’re seeing now. The early European explorers of the Arctic had the misfortune of trying to sail through the Archipelago after a cooling trend had set in. Just bad timing, it would seem.
That cooling trend has apparently come to end in both the Canadian and Arctic sides of the North Polar region. The resulting spats over who controls these waters and the resources below are only going to get more heated, and may represent some the first serious political consequences of climate change.
The subject is also the inspiration for one of my favorite folk songs: The Northwest Passage, by the late great Stan Rogers. Here’s the chorus:
Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage
To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea;
Tracing one warm line through a land so wild and savage
And make a Northwest Passage to the sea.