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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947. Skyepony (Mod)
4:57 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
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946. UYA
4:54 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
I'm so happy for frickin Shell Skyepony!
It's not going to happen....like, winter is happening now and the water freezes? Anyone at Shell remember that?
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945. Skyepony (Mod)
4:46 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
Ah but in a decade the Northweat Passage is forecasted to stay open. Shell has already begun their sampling.

I think 1/2 of 94L slid out in the EPAC, notice NOAA had a floater marked invest over land & the EPAC yesterday on the Atlantic page. Bits of energy slipping west. Now we have what NHC is calling INVEST
12/2345 UTC 13.7N 104.6W TOO WEAK INVEST
12/1745 UTC 12.8N 105.1W T1.5/1.5 INVEST
11/2345 UTC 12.9N 101.5W TOO WEAK INVEST
11/1745 UTC 13.1N 101.6W TOO WEAK INVEST
They moved an EPAC floater over there today
& several models have it kinda syphin off some of 94L til it's a TS moving NW.
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944. UYA
4:46 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
TROPICAL WEATHER OUTLOOK
NWS TPC/NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER MIAMI FL
1030 PM EDT FRI OCT 12 2007

A NEARLY STATIONARY AND LARGE AREA OF DISTURBED WEATHER OVER
PORTIONS OF CENTRAL AMERICA...THE NORTHWESTERN CARIBBEAN SEA...CUBA
AND JAMAICA IS ASSOCIATED WITH A BROAD AREA OF LOW PRESSURE. SINCE
MOST OF THE SYSTEM IS OVER LAND...TROPICAL CYCLONE FORMATION IS
NOT EXPECTED. HOWEVER...HEAVY RAINS WILL LIKELY CONTINUE OVER THIS
AREA FOR THE NEXT FEW DAYS...PRIMARILY OVER PORTIONS OF THE PACIFIC
COAST OF CENTRAL AMERICA.
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943. flaboyinga
12:41 AM EDT on October 13, 2007
942. LakeShadow 12:40 AM EDT on October 13, 2007 Hide this comment.
So has there been any development of the sleeping giant or 97L or even TD 15..it was maintaining poor convection last time I checked.. Anything else?


I think there were some comments earlier about it being in a position to pull in moisture from both the W Carib and the E Pac, and also that the GOM and the W.Carib were showing low pressure over most of the area. This would give the giant a good environment to develope if it moved E over water.
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942. LakeShadow
4:38 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
So has there been any development of the sleeping giant or 97L or even TD 15..it was maintaining poor convection last time I checked.. Anything else?
Member Since: August 10, 2007 Posts: 3 Comments: 2134
941. flaboyinga
12:35 AM EDT on October 13, 2007
929. flaboyinga 12:16 AM EDT on October 13, 2007
66. stormybil 02:39 AM GMT am 13. Oktober 2007
cant tell where the gfs is getting this fla storm i know its not ex94l but somthing that forms from the bahamas check it out

Link

Stormy, I came online a little while ago and caught you post with the link. That model sure seems to indicate a storm developing in the S end of the Bahamas and tearing a path thru SE Fla. Now I know what finally is gonna happen to the remnants of Karen. It doesn't look like it has time to become very strong before it heads toward Bermuda tho.


Has anyone else looked at the link the Stormybil posted with the model showing this storm forecast?
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940. TampaSpin
4:33 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
Wonder why the NHC did not really mention x94L at all in their last update? If looks like the LLC is halfway back in the Carrib. unless im looking at it wrong.
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939. LakeShadow
4:35 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
and if we can bring the different kinds of losers of this nation together on a forum such as this to discuss monumental life topics such as weather and nature, well theres hope for mankind, afterall...
:)
Member Since: August 10, 2007 Posts: 3 Comments: 2134
938. flaboyinga
12:33 AM EDT on October 13, 2007
In the words of Jerry Reed, "He who expecteth nothing, ain't gonna be disappointed."
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937. LakeShadow
4:33 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
quite the system off the east coast of new england...wonder what bonedog or newxguy have to say...
Member Since: August 10, 2007 Posts: 3 Comments: 2134
936. beell
4:31 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
If it does go to the BOC, pretty sure the next front will move it. Then the front goes zonal.
Then it could slow down.
It has to escape first.
The mean layer cimiss charts appear to be building a stronger prison.
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935. LakeShadow
4:32 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
There are degrees of loserness...a continuum, have you...
Member Since: August 10, 2007 Posts: 3 Comments: 2134
934. flaboyinga
12:29 AM EDT on October 13, 2007
Hey Shadow, we're not exactly like you. We're losers in our own personal ways with our own personal styles.lol
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933. UYA
4:29 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
OK Skyepony....I understand the water is already freezing there now. So, maybe we shouldn't get so excited.
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932. LakeShadow
4:28 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
yeah skypony, Russia planted the flag on the North Pole. Canada's building its military! There's one final frontier to be conquered...they should make it a reality TV show...yeah get Mark Burnett on the case!
Member Since: August 10, 2007 Posts: 3 Comments: 2134
931. LakeShadow
4:27 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
hey, all! So y'all are losers like me , hanging out on a tropical blog on a friday night when there's not really much happening...that's comforting...
*smiles*
Member Since: August 10, 2007 Posts: 3 Comments: 2134
930. Skyepony (Mod)
4:15 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
Ya'll watch, this whole NW passage could get really messy. There's 8 countries Canada, Denmark, Russia, United States, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland all wanting in on this cash cow of oil & diamonds, silver, copper, zinc and maybe uranium. Russia has claimed a chunk & the others laughed. The Canadians are claiming a good bit of the passage as under their control, rallied troops. The US sends a nuclear sub through. They never have figured out how to clean up an oil spill in cold waters either.
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929. flaboyinga
4:10 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
66. stormybil 02:39 AM GMT am 13. Oktober 2007
cant tell where the gfs is getting this fla storm i know its not ex94l but somthing that forms from the bahamas check it out

Link


Stormy, I came online a little while ago and caught you post with the link. That model sure seems to indicate a storm developing in the S end of the Bahamas and tearing a path thru SE Fla. Now I know what finally is gonna happen to the remnants of Karen. It doesn't look like it has time to become very strong before it heads toward Bermuda tho.
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928. moonlightcowboy
4:11 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
--UYA, you may be right. Hopefully, shear will hang around long enough to "fizzle" this thing when it gets going. It'll be interesting to see what the next fronts are and how it might effect steering.
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927. UYA
4:05 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
I'm personally only giving this a slight shot of dragging in some moisture to the Red/Flag areas of the Panhandle. Not much more.
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926. TampaSpin
4:06 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
could a storm be coming.....hum
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925. UYA
4:01 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
Reply coming Cowboy....neeed some meds first.
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924. moonlightcowboy
3:55 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
lol, beell. That's a BUI! Not sure what the fine or incarceration is! lol

--UYA, of course there's low pressure, and I'm sure shear (tongue twister, lol) is not as strong, or will relax. That GFS run has it coming to MS, but we both know that's days away. When (Noel) spins up with weak steering, intensification imo, is likely over those SST's and TCHP. So, I'm thinking stronger storm, which would alter the model runs imo. And, we need to see what steering may develop. I'm not a model fan, but I do like the GFS. These storms this time of your like to find wcFL as I'm sure you know well.

And, I definitely think we're gonna see something spin up out there with that low. And, I think it'll get named, too.
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923. beell
3:54 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
The other bottle
blogging under the influence
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922. UYA
3:51 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
What dynamics change? The NW Carib is always ripe this time of the season.
I do not see any reason to not belive there is a low pressure center off Belize....nor do I believe the shear is as strong as the charts say.
I say .....let's see what the GFS develops.
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921. moonlightcowboy
3:52 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
lol, beell...and the entree'?
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920. CosmicEvents
3:46 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
I've been watching ex-94L all day. It was quasi-stationary earlier. In the last 3 hours it's been nearly stationary. I expect in the overnite hours it will meander.
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919. beell
3:50 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
mlc-i forgot to add the j/k and lol
Cooked w/wine tonight
Changed my shirt

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918. moonlightcowboy
3:46 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
No, stormybil, but thanks. The GFS is a respected model. Geeeesssh, I dunno. But, that kind of looks like what we're seeing out there now...not much steering in the Caribbean, GOM shear big and then expected to relax. So, that GFS seems to accurately depict the conditions as they're set now. We'll see. My concern is that with weak steering over warm waters, intensification will be the protocol...and that changes the dynamics somewhat.
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917. stormybil
3:44 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
hey mlc did you see this loop for fla.wating for another run

Link
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916. beell
3:44 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
So which way is it going to exit the Yucatan?
Caribb/BOC
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915. beell
3:43 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
Oh he's quick.
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914. moonlightcowboy
3:42 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
lol, beell, ironically you mentioned Christmas? "NOEL" ????
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913. beell
3:42 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
Ya'll stuck in a loop?
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912. TampaSpin
3:42 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
i found alittle humor for everyone......lol
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911. beell
3:31 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
mlc...
gonna move north spit another vort make a loop
gonna move north spit another vort make a loop
gonna move north spit another vort make a loop
Merry Christmas
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910. SamTeam
10:27 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
You to Beell...see ya
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909. beell
3:25 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
Nite Neighbor Ladies.
You to Pablo
)
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908. moonlightcowboy
3:25 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
Have a good sleep, K'man...and beell!
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907. pablolopez26
3:17 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
Good nite all... I am out to enjoy our 69 degree weather here in town...
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906. SamTeam
10:15 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
903. Floodman 10:12 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
The rotation is still 60 or so miles inland...amazingly, it seems to be stationary.



What is keeping it there? I wonder if it will be an invest tomorrow.
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905. Floodman
3:13 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
G'night, kman
Member Since: August 2, 2006 Posts: 10 Comments: 9922
904. shoreacres
10:12 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
Nite, all... going to go enjoy the cooling temps for a bit...
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903. Floodman
3:06 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
The rotation is still 60 or so miles inland...amazingly, it seems to be stationary.
Member Since: August 2, 2006 Posts: 10 Comments: 9922
902. SamTeam
10:11 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
NIte.. come back tomorrow Kman
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901. beell
3:10 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
Nite K'man
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900. shoreacres
10:07 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
Hey, Pablo - yep, that's the neighborhood! I'm glad it's October and not June - not sure my nerves could stand looking at all this!
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899. beell
3:07 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
ST-lucky in topography. Short hop to Galveston Bay from here-no backwater problems.
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898. SamTeam
10:07 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
pablolopez26 I'm having flashbacks! Those are great picts. That bud truck was something else.

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897. pablolopez26
3:07 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
Who needs dry roads when you have free beer!!!
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About

Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.