Northeast Passage expected to open in early summer this year; route along Russian coast offers a 4,000 mile shortcut between Europe and Asia
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — After a series of measurement flights over the Laptev Sea, scientists with the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research are predicting that the Northeast Pass, an Arctic Ocean shortcut along the north coast of Russia, will once again be ice-free and passable to ships by early summer.
The Laptev Sea is known as in ice factory, but at the end of the winter, researchers discovered large areas of thin ice that won’t survive the summer melting season.
“These results were a great surprise to us,” said expedition member Dr. Thomas Krumpen.
In previous measurements in the winter of 2007-2008 the ice in the same area had been up to one meter thicker. Krumpen said the difference is mainly due to wind.
“It behaves differently from year to year. If, as last winter, the wind blows from the mainland to the sea, it pushes the pack ice from the Laptev Sea towards the north. Open water areas, so-called polynyas, develop in this way before the coast,” Krumpen said. “Their surface water naturally cools very quickly at an air temperature of minus 40 degrees. New thin ice forms and is then immediately swept away again by the wind. In view of this cycle, differently sized areas of thin ice then develop on the Laptev Sea depending on wind strength and continuity,” he explained.
However, the expedition team was unaware of just how large these areas can actually become until they made the measurement flights in March and April of this year. In places the thin ice extended for about 400 kilometers.
The EM Bird — a torpedo-shaped, electromagnetic ice thickness sensor operated by the Alfred Wegener Institute — was hung on a cable beneath the helicopter. It constantly recorded the thickness of the floating ice.
“We now have a unique data set which we primarily want to use to check satellite measurements,” Krumpen said, referring to the SMOS satellite mission primarily designed to measure soil moisture and ocean salinity. The same satellite, operated by the European Space Agency can also be used to survey the Arctic sea ice.
“The satellite can be used above all to detect thin ice areas, as we have seen them, from space“, explains Thomas Krumpen. The measurements from March and April of this year confirmed that the thin ice areas discovered by the expedition team were not a locally restricted phenomenon:
“A large part of the North-East Passage was characterized by surprisingly thin ice at the end of the winter,” he said. “These huge new areas of thin ice will be the first to disappear when the ice melts in summer. And if the thin ice melts as quickly as we presume, the Laptev Sea, and with it a part of the Northeast Passage, will be free from ice comparatively early this summer,” he said.
In the past, the Laptev Sea was covered with sea ice from October to the end of the following July and was navigable for a maximum of two summer months.
In 2011 the ice had retracted so far by the third week of July that 33 ships were able to navigate the Arctic waters of Russia for the first time during the summer.
The North-East Passage is viewed by shipping companies to be a time and fuel saving alternative to the conventional Europe-Asia route. The connection from Rotterdam to Yokohama, Japan via the Northeast Passage is about 3,800 sea miles shorter than taking the Suez Canal and Indian Ocean route.
Filed under: climate and weather, Environment, global warming Tagged: | Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, Arctic Ocean, climate, European Space Agency, global warming, Laptev Sea, Northeast Passage, Northern Sea Route