Fabled Northwest Passage begins to re-freeze

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 2:29 PM GMT on October 12, 2007

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This summer's dramatic loss of Arctic sea ice peaked on September 15, and the polar ice cap is finally beginning to re-freeze, according to a press release issued by the National Snow and Ice Data Center on October 1. Extent of the September polar sea ice fell 39%, compared to the 1979-2000 average. To put this loss in perspective, in one year we lost as much ice as we lost during the previous 28 years. Summertime Arctic sea ice is now at 50% of what it was in the 1950s (Figure 1). One may look at at graph and wonder, but what about sea ice loss in other seasons? It hasn't been nearly so severe. True, but it is the summer ice we care most about, since summer is when the thick, multi-year ice melts, which can then precondition the Arctic for much greater ice loss in future years. As sea ice melts in response to rising temperatures, more of the dark ocean is exposed, allowing it to absorb more of the sun's energy. This further increases air temperatures, ocean temperatures, and ice melt in a process know as the "ice-albedo feedback" (albedo means how much sunlight a surface reflects). There is an excellent chance that the summer of 2007 will be remembered as the "tipping point" for Arctic sea ice, when an irreversible ice-albedo feedback process firmly established itself.



Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent since 1900, as estimated from satellite and ship reports compiled by Walsh and Chapman (2001). Image credit: University of Illinois cryosphere group.

Northwest Passage opens for the first time in recorded history
Long before the Panama and Suez Canals made commercial trading between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans economically feasible, ships made the long and perilous trip around the African and South America continents. Explorers, traders, and world leaders looking for faster and less dangerous shipping routes to far-away areas of the world have long eyed two routes through the ice-choked Arctic Ocean--the fabled Northwest Passage, through the cold Arctic waters north of Canada, and the Northeast Passage, extending along the northern coast of Russia. The first recorded attempt to find and sail the Northwest Passage was in 1497, and ended in failure. The thick ice choking the waterways thwarted all attempts at passage for the next four centuries. Finally, in 1905, Roald Amundsen completed the first successful navigation of the Northwest Passage. It took his ship two-and-a-half years to navigate through narrow passages of open water, and his ship spent two cold, dark winters locked in the ice during the feat. More recently, icebreakers and ice-strengthened ships have on occasion battered their way through the ice-blocked route.



Figure 2. The Northwest Passage shipping route (red line) and Northeast Passage (green line) superimposed on an ice coverage map from August 22, 2007. The Northwest Passage was ice-free and navigable for 36 days between August 14 and September 18, 2007. The Northeast Passage was blocked by a narrow strip of ice most of the summer. Image credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Times are changing. In 2001, the Bering Strait, a key portion of both the Northwest and Northeast Passages, was completely ice free. This was followed in 2005 by record-breaking sea-ice melt in the Arctic, leading to the first ever recorded opening of the Northeast Passage. The fabled Northwest Passage remained closed in 2005. Arctic ice recovered a bit in 2006, and both passages remained closed. But the unprecedented melting during the summer of 2007 saw the Northwest Passage become ice-free and navigable along its entire length without the need for an icebreaker as of August 14, 2007. Remarkably, the Northwest Passage remained ice-free for 36 days, finally refreezing over a small section on September 19. The Northeast Passage was blocked by a narrow strip of ice all summer. However, this strip of ice thinned to just 30% coverage on September 25 and 26, making the Northeast Passage passable for ordinary ships on those days.

When is the last time the Northwest Passage was open?
We can be sure the Northwest Passage was never open from 1900 on, as we have detailed ice edge records from ships. It is very unlikely the Passage was open between 1497 and 1900, since this was a cold period in the northern latitudes known as "The Little Ice Age". Ships periodically attempted the Passage and were foiled during this period, and the native Inuit people have no historical tales of the Passage being navigable at any time in the past.

A good candidate for the last previous opening of the Northwest Passage was the period 5,000-7,000 years ago, when the Earth's orbital variations brought more sunlight to the Arctic in summer than at present. Prior to that, the Passage was probably open during the last inter-glacial period, 120,000 years ago. Temperatures then were 2-3 degrees Centigrade higher than present-day temperatures, and sea levels were 4-6 meters higher.

Final thoughts
If we have reached the tipping point for Arctic ice, what are the implications? I'll discuss this more in a future blog. Sea ice is very complicated, and it is not a sure thing that we have reached the tipping point. For more on the complexities of sea ice, read wunderblogger Dr. Ricky Rood's latest blog.

NASA has posted a beautiful satellite image of the Arctic ice cap at the September 15 2007 minimum, showing the open water of the Northwest Passage.

I thank Edalin Michael of the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and Robert Grumbine of NOAA's Sea Ice Group for their contributions to this blog.

References
Walsh, J.E and W.L.Chapman, 2001, "Twentieth-century sea ice variations from observational data", Annals of Glaciology, 33, Number 1, January 2001 , pp. 444-448.

Jeff Masters

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297. NoNamePub
5:58 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
456 ...Yes!
Thats the one!

Thanks!
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
296. Weather456
5:55 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
287. NoNamePub 5:54 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
Can someone post the Navy Map that shows all Tropical waves and Lows that are out there?


i tthink u mean this

Go down to the section that says

Specialized Tropical
Surface Analysis
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294. latitude25
1:54 PM EDT on October 12, 2007
Interesting side note on carbon notes and trees.

Methane is 60 times more powerful than CO2 as a greenhouse gas.

Methane is produced by plants, the largest methane cloud on the planet is over the Amazon rain forest.

Buying trees to offset CO2 seems sorta silly.
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293. catwomen
5:48 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
262. cchsweatherman 5:35 PM GMT on October 12, 2007 I hate to say this, but only a strong tropical cyclone will put a dent in the historic drought in the SE. I just wish it wouldn't take that to end the drought.



cchsweatherman North Carolina has been hoping a tropical storm would come their way and bring some rain. I live in Virginia and we need much needed rain as well. Here lately all we get is sprinkles, not enough to water the crops or flowers. I never seen a day when we went with out water this long.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
292. Floodman
5:53 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
283. NoNamePub 5:52 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
Someone referenced GFS 12hz deloping something to C. Fla?

Is coming off of the cold front?



The GFS presents something at 114 hours out, crossing into Florida SE of Panama City...
Member Since: August 2, 2006 Posts: 10 Comments: 9922
291. sporteguy03
5:55 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
JP,
TIA for all your great jokes on weather :) Are you still dressing up as a hurricane for Halloween?
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
290. sporteguy03
5:53 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
Weather456,
Thanks in Advance for your updates around the clock.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
289. hurricane23
13:53 EDT le 12 octobre 2007
284. Floodman 13:53 EDT le 12 octobre 2007
280. nrtiwlnvragn 5:50 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
A NEW 1004 MB LOW HAS DEVELOPED OFF THE COAST OF BELIZE NEAR 19N87W AND IS NEARLY STATIONARY. AN OLD 1006 MB LOW IS INLAND OVER GUATEMALA NEAR 16N90W.



Cool, back to the tropics...so, does the new low stand a chance of breaking away from the trof? Anyone?

Its possible.
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287. NoNamePub
5:53 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
Can someone post the Navy Map that shows all Tropical waves and Lows that are out there?
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
285. Weather456
5:50 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
weather 456....
You can't honestly blame this on Bush?

Not blaming him

I found it on google images when i typed in Globnal warming...i really dont care who caused it...its a boring, stupid and wothless topic and waste of my time...IMHO.
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284. Floodman
5:50 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
280. nrtiwlnvragn 5:50 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
A NEW 1004 MB LOW HAS DEVELOPED OFF THE COAST OF BELIZE NEAR 19N87W AND IS NEARLY STATIONARY. AN OLD 1006 MB LOW IS INLAND OVER GUATEMALA NEAR 16N90W.



Cool, back to the tropics...so, does the new low stand a chance of breaking away from the trof? Anyone?
Member Since: August 2, 2006 Posts: 10 Comments: 9922
283. NoNamePub
5:51 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
Someone referenced GFS 12hz deloping something to C. Fla?

Is coming off of the cold front?
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
282. brazocane
12:51 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
"Tennessee Center for Policy Research charged that the gas and electric bills for the former vice president Al Gore's 20-room home and pool house devoured nearly 221,000 kilowatt-hours in 2006, more than 20 times the national average of 10,656 kilowatt-hours, and cost more than $30,000."

Maybe he should buy a Prius and offset that electric bill.
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280. nrtiwlnvragn
5:48 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
A NEW 1004 MB LOW HAS DEVELOPED OFF THE COAST OF BELIZE NEAR 19N87W AND IS NEARLY STATIONARY. AN OLD 1006 MB LOW IS INLAND OVER GUATEMALA NEAR 16N90W.

Tropical Weather Discussion
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279. Floodman
5:48 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
Yep, NEwxguy...I'm a pragmatist...if you can't beat 'em, strip down and join 'em!
Member Since: August 2, 2006 Posts: 10 Comments: 9922
278. Floodman
5:47 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
275. LakeShadow 5:46 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
there's always Yosemite, Floodman!



oh no, it can't be one big one...has to be smaller events, spread out over 7-10 years...
Member Since: August 2, 2006 Posts: 10 Comments: 9922
277. NEwxguy
5:46 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
If we're effecting the curve, and amplifying it, then it IS global warming, as well as being a pollution issue...

I say we need some titanic volcanic eruptions...5 or 10 Pinatubo-type eruptions shoudl do it...then everything will cool off for a while...

Or we could used to wearing less clothing...LOL

Finally a voice of reason
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276. DallasGumby
5:36 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
250. CosmicEvents 5:30 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
All the GW talk is pretty much a rehash of previous talks, but I personally think that today is a good day to rehash and perhaps rethink though, in light of the fact that Al Gore received the NOBEL PEACE PRIZE for championing the efforts of studying and bringing attention to GW. If the people who vote for the Noble Peace Prize think that climate change is for real then maybe that should cause some time for reflection on one's thoughts.


With all due respect, I place little stock in the Nobel Peace Prize committee. After all, they gave the Prize one year to Yasser Arafat. Another time, they gave it to Mikael Gorbachev, for his work on ending the Cold War (but didn't give it to Ronald Reagan, who forced Gorachev to that point). Le Duc Tho of Vietnam was another recipient. I could go on.
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275. LakeShadow
5:46 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
there's always Yosemite, Floodman!
Member Since: August 10, 2007 Posts: 3 Comments: 2134
274. NoNamePub
5:45 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
weather 456....
You can't honestly blame this on Bush?
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
273. Floodman
5:40 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
268. jphurricane2006 5:39 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
well see and thats the thing

if we agree it is a natural process that is being enhanced by the human race, the the issue is the enhancement by the human race

then it is a pollution issue not a Global Warming issue


If we're effecting the curve, and amplifying it, then it IS global warming, as well as being a pollution issue...

I say we need some titanic volcanic eruptions...5 or 10 Pinatubo-type eruptions should do it...then everything will cool off for a while...

Or we could used to wearing less clothing...LOL
Member Since: August 2, 2006 Posts: 10 Comments: 9922
272. weatherboykris
5:40 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
271. LakeShadow
5:40 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
*quotes the comic store guy (Jeff Albertson) from The Simpsons*
"Oh, a sarcasm detector...that's a REAL useful invention!" (at this time Prof. Frink's sarcasm detector explodes)
Member Since: August 10, 2007 Posts: 3 Comments: 2134
270. NEwxguy
5:39 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
267. LakeShadow 5:38 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
you use that term "wonderful" a bit loosely...NEwxguy.

lol,did you detect the note of sarcasm
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269. weatherboykris
5:32 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
266. Weather456
1:36 PM AST on October 12, 2007
i agree with that poster...I dont debate over Global Warming cuz humans will neva fix it...hype or no hype....i rather watch weather as it happens.....ppl who debate about.....happily do so.

stronger hurricanes, higher seas, lower ice...I blame it on Mother nature.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
265. NEwxguy
5:34 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
the problem I have is not with the debate over the issue,but the fact that little people like us have an opinion,but try to get our wonderful leaders to listen and do something is the completely frustrating part of the whole subject.
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264. LakeShadow
5:36 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
Is this dorught in the SE going to affect orange prices/production?
Member Since: August 10, 2007 Posts: 3 Comments: 2134
262. cchsweatherman
5:34 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
I hate to say this, but only a strong tropical cyclone will put a dent in the historic drought in the SE. I just wish it wouldn't take that to end the drought.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
261. brazocane
12:34 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
256. jphurricane2006 12:33 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
actually brazo I was being sarcastic about the world burning up lol


haha I know....
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259. cchsweatherman
5:32 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
249. IKE 5:30 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
cchsweatherman 12:28 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
Florida does not need the rain

The panhandle desperately needs the rain. We've had under 10 inches since August 1st.


I should correct that to say Central and Southern Florida does not need the rain. I forgot the huge deficit in the panhandle.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
254. brazocane
12:29 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
Jp do you mean in this world that is going to burn up cause of manmade Global Warming.... And you are right but that is the secondary definition of argument.

ar·gu·ment (är'gyə-mənt)
A. discussion in which disagreement is expressed; a debate.
B. quarrel; a dispute.

By the way I do agree with your stance on GW.
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253. seflagamma
1:29 PM AST on October 12, 2007
My dad lives in Miss 3 miles from Lake Enid and that lake and entire area needs rain badly also.. I think the entire SE area needs rain.

Yes, most of Florida got alot of rain for lawns and stuff but it doesn't last long here; we have no where to store the rain water.. but our lakes really need a few more feet in them.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
251. LakeShadow
5:28 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
Dr Masters opened up the gates to climate change and melting and refreezing ice and well, the tropics are slow...we're bored... there you have it.
I'm still interested in what's happening along the itcz, but floodman says its nothing of invest...anyone wish to check it out and post imput?
Member Since: August 10, 2007 Posts: 3 Comments: 2134
250. CosmicEvents
5:16 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
All the GW talk is pretty much a rehash of previous talks, but I personally think that today is a good day to rehash and perhaps rethink though, in light of the fact that Al Gore received the NOBEL PEACE PRIZE for championing the efforts of studying and bringing attention to GW. If the people who vote for the Noble Peace Prize think that climate change is for real then maybe that should cause some time for reflection on one's thoughts.
.
.
The Dr's blog on the Northwest Passage is obviously a reference to ice melt and GW. He didn't bring it up to inspire thoughts on maritime history or world commerce.
Member Since: August 3, 2005 Posts: 10 Comments: 5684
249. IKE
12:28 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
cchsweatherman 12:28 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
Florida does not need the rain


The panhandle desperately needs the rain. We've had under 10 inches since August 1st.
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248. NEwxguy
5:28 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
((((groan)))I'll take your lead ike
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247. seflagamma
1:26 PM AST on October 12, 2007
cchs,
thanks that is good news. saw article they want to keep it lower and that is a good thing.. I don't want to see it back up beyond 13 feet anymore.. it is not healthy for the lake at all that high, nature prefers around 12 foot as good for fishing and growing the fishing grasses. and for human safety that levee just cannot hold back more than 13 feet safely without possible breaking.

the Corps of Eng are wanting to NO allow it over 12 feet until those levees are repaired....which the health of the lake will appreciate.
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Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.

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