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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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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246. IKE
12:27 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
NEwxguy 12:27 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
lol,correct me if I'm wrong this is a tropical blog???


Actually it's more then that...

I've mastered the GW debate...I just skip over the posts.
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244. cchsweatherman
5:26 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
Florida does not need the rain, Georgia and Alabama NEED the rain badly. I am almost scared to think what would happen if the lakes dried up there, especially in the summer months.
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243. ConantheLibrarian
5:27 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
In Dr. M's blogpost, the question about the opening of the northwest passage was raised. I don't know about other times, but, Cpt Ross sailed within 50 miles of the Beaufort Sea in 1818, through the Lancaster sound. He panicked and saild out before he could find out if the channel went all the way or not.

Hope this sheds light.

For a great read on this, I suggest "The Arctic Grail" by Berton
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242. NEwxguy
5:25 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
lol,correct me if I'm wrong this is a tropical blog???
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241. Hhunter
5:23 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
sam team i hope i am wrong too..
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240. cchsweatherman
5:24 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
235. seflagamma 5:23 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
Ike,
Nothing would be better than a nice soaking Irene type of storm, lots of rain on all those central and northern Florida lakes that are way too dry... got neighbors and family members who have 2nd (or later retirement) homes on some of these lakes and the lakes got dry last spring and still way too low..

and we all know Lake O is in bad shape. going up there in a few weeks to take more pictures and do another feature blog on Lake O.


Just to let you know, Lake Okeechobee has finally risen to above 10 feet to around 10.1 feet. That is great news.
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238. IKE
12:24 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
cchsweatherman 12:23 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
Good point IKE. Lake Lainier in GA is now only three months from completely drying up. They need the rain so bad. Too bad there was no efficient way to transport the flood water that was in Texas over to the SE. That would have killed two brids with one stone right there.


I live on lake front property...the stumps aren't pretty...there's another lake across the road...I was noticing today...it looks terrible. Small lakes are dried up. This is as bad as I've ever seen it.
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236. cchsweatherman
5:21 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
Good point IKE. Lake Lainier in GA is now only three months from completely drying up. They need the rain so bad. Too bad there was no efficient way to transport the flood water that was in Texas over to the SE. That would have killed two brids with one stone right there.
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235. seflagamma
1:21 PM AST on October 12, 2007
Ike,
Nothing would be better than a nice soaking Irene type of storm, lots of rain on all those central and northern Florida lakes that are way too dry... got neighbors and family members who have 2nd (or later retirement) homes on some of these lakes and the lakes got dry last spring and still way too low..

and we all know Lake O is in bad shape. going up there in a few weeks to take more pictures and do another feature blog on Lake O.
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234. Weather456
1:18 PM AST on October 12, 2007
This 12Z GFS Model Run show 94L moving back over the Yucantan....strange...
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233. brazocane
12:20 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
arguing:
To put forth reasons for or against; debate

Debate/argument same thing.

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230. LakeShadow
5:18 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
People get uncomfortable when they realize that their lifestyle may be harming their natural environment. Change is scary...even if it takes millions of years to occur...
With that being said, we all need to be more conscious about how we treat this big blue gem which we all share.
:o)
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229. IKE
12:19 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
hurricane23 12:19 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
12z GFS shows nothing of great importance besides a low coming out of the caribbean at 300hrs+ and taking of to the NE


Of great importance is a 1008 mb low that soaks a parched eastern gulf coast in about 5-6 days. Too many stumps are showing up in these lakes around here...in plain English...this drought is bad.
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228. seflagamma
1:18 PM AST on October 12, 2007
211. cchsweatherman 1:13 PM AST on October 12, 2007
I agree 100% with you 456.

I just took a look at the 06z GFS. It has the low strengthening into a tropical storm or minimal hurricane and hitting Central Florida late next week. Comments on that run?




Oh no.. just saw that post... I take back everything I said in my first post here a few minutes ago.... I don't want any hurricanes on my door step!!! I've already started planting my "winter" plants and cannot have storms blowing them away! LOL
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226. cchsweatherman
5:17 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
IKE, thanks for linking the 12z GFS. I always look at the FSU model page for the GFS, CMC, etc. It only had the 06Z GFS on there.
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225. hurricane23
13:17 EDT le 12 octobre 2007
12z GFS shows nothing of great importance besides a low coming out of the caribbean at 300hrs+ and taking of to the NE.
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224. seflagamma
1:16 PM AST on October 12, 2007
cchs, LOL.. I didn't really mean that! LOL
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222. IKE
12:16 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
brazocane 12:15 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
I know GW is Dr. Masters bag, but couldn't he have put that in a seperate blog this blog is about the tropics, and with all the GW arguing I cant find any info on the tropics. He might as well have posted something about insurance companies.


LOL....oh no, not homeowners insurance!

What's next...the 2008 election???? LOL!!!!!
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221. seflagamma
1:14 PM AST on October 12, 2007
oh my, LOL!

our old 94 is looking pretty good again.. someone said they thought it was starting to imerge again into WCarb... I looked at Sat and it does appear to be getting over water again.

wonder if they will make this an invest again and give it same number???
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220. IKE
12:15 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
cchsweatherman 12:13 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
I agree 100% with you 456.

I just took a look at the 06z GFS. It has the low strengthening into a tropical storm or minimal hurricane and hitting Central Florida late next week. Comments on that run?


The 12Z GFS....

Link
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219. brazocane
12:13 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
I know GW is Dr. Masters bag, but couldn't he have put that in a seperate blog this blog is about the tropics, and with all the GW arguing I cant find any info on the tropics. He might as well have posted something about insurance companies.
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218. LakeShadow
5:09 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
And the earth shakes and spews lava and gases and throws water about, She rules our fetes..I have all the confidence in the world that balance prevails.... It is what we as humans must endure to achieve that balance...either a counter solution to the imbalances we contribute or mass devastation to major cities. ( by means of the earth's response to us).. The same thing gets accomplished by the earth...but the means of that end is what we wish to alter.
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217. DallasGumby
5:12 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
201. LakeShadow 5:06 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
I think its niave to believe that the human population and the industrialization of our societies has not affected our habitat


No one that I have ever heard is suggesting that human population and industrialization have not affected our habitat. So, you set up a straw man simply to cut him down.

The debate is not whether we've "affected our habitat"; rather, the debate is whether we've affected the global climate to any significant degree and, if so, how.
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216. IKE
12:14 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
jphurricane2006 12:13 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
Global Warming directly affects the hurricane seasons, so its very relevant in a tropical weather blo


I know what you believe...I know what STL believes...I know what I believe....what more can you say about it?
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215. hurricane23
13:12 EDT le 12 octobre 2007
Well in that case keep an eye out for an eye age to take over the planet in the next couple of weeks as dinosaurs will once again take over.
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213. cchsweatherman
5:13 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
207. seflagamma 5:11 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
Good Grief!

I almost wish we had hurricanes on our door step to keep this blog off of Climate Change/GW and politics for a while longer.

That is why I do not post andmost of the time not even lurk in this blog when there are no storms to watch!

Geeze!!! I have my opinions but not going to start fights in this blog.

did some flagging thought so a few really really really rude folks may be gone for awhile soon.

OK, appears we got tropics again? LOL!

gams


Be Careful What You Wish For!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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211. cchsweatherman
5:09 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
I agree 100% with you 456.

I just took a look at the 06z GFS. It has the low strengthening into a tropical storm or minimal hurricane and hitting Central Florida late next week. Comments on that run?
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210. IKE
12:12 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
I almost wish we had hurricanes on our door step to keep this blog off of Climate Change/GW and politics for a while longer.

I was thinking the same thing...the GW argument...just goes on and on like an energizer bunny!
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209. hurricane23
13:10 EDT le 12 octobre 2007
The wave in the eastern caribbean is something to watch into next week as the overall pattern in the caribbean will be quite favorable for some type of development.
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207. seflagamma
1:08 PM AST on October 12, 2007
Good Grief!

I almost wish we had hurricanes on our door step to keep this blog off of Climate Change/GW and politics for a while longer.

That is why I do not post andmost of the time not even lurk in this blog when there are no storms to watch!

Geeze!!! I have my opinions but not going to start fights in this blog.

did some flagging thought so a few really really really rude folks may be gone for awhile soon.

OK, appears we got tropics again? LOL!

gams
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205. hurricane23
13:09 EDT le 12 octobre 2007
Can we please keep this global warming stuff of the blog.
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202. Weather456
12:59 PM AST on October 12, 2007
192. cchsweatherman 12:58 PM AST on October 12, 2007 Hide this comment.
Hey 456,
TD 15 looking good now. I would now have to say it looks like Tropical Storm Noel based on that image.

456, I want to hear what you have to say on former 94L. Could be a possible threat to the CONUS.



94L currently in a environment of weak steering currents so the next 24-48 hr motion is uncertain. After about 48hrs the low will move towards the NNE and NE along a surface trough (area of least resistance)...in addition it would be pulled more on that direction by a cold front currently off the coast of the E USA..moving at the same speed as 94L.

Nothing is 100% certain...so the US can still be affected if 94L deviates from forecast. The areas of most interest are Western Cuba, the FL keys...S FL and the Bahamas.


if it does enter the gulf it will encounter a shear zone.
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201. LakeShadow
4:56 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
I think its niave to believe that the human population and the industrialization of our societies has not affected our habitat. Like other things that have come before humans... The arguement HHunter presents has been the same bit of PR BS that had kept our govt's from addressing the situation in a timely manner. Many of the politicians that do take that viewpoint are also against the idea of evolution... Theres a lack of credibility in that sense.
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200. SamTeam
11:48 AM CDT on October 12, 2007
161. Hhunter 11:36 AM CDT on October 12, 2007

First, sorry it took me so long to comment - fire drill in the building...gggrrrr..

The points that you've laid out make sense and also have given me some things to look for in coming days.

I hope you're wrong though!
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198. IKE
12:03 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
JFV 12:03 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
Anyone thinks that the former 94l still has chance to regenerate? As it appears that it's getting readt to reamerge over the westren carribean watres. Any thoughts please. I would hugely appreciate them. Thanks


I think it has a chance...could be a good rainmaker....1004 mb low is near the eastern Yucatan coast....

Link
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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.