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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897. pablolopez26
3:07 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
Who needs dry roads when you have free beer!!!
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896. kmanislander
3:06 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
Well I am going to catch me an early night so I can enjoy the weekend
Nice chatting with you all
let's see what tomorrow brings.

good night
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895. pablolopez26
3:05 AM GMT on October 13, 2007


The beer incident... LOL
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894. SamTeam
10:04 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
890. shoreacres 10:03 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
SamTeam ~ we took it down to the studs, rebuilt, and sold about 2-3 years later to a real estate developer who bulldozed the dang thing to build one of those huge new houses! Now, I'm down on Clear Lake - had so much fun, I moved closer to the water. In the cat2 surge zone now, and believe me, I keep an eye out!


Glad it worked out for y'all. I despise those ole' townhouses. They take down so much of our history. All in the name of progress I guess.

Yes, keep an eye out, I'm thinkin' CL will get wiped if we get a bad one. I like "Dodge the Bullet Houston"
Member Since: September 22, 2007 Posts: 0 Comments: 213
893. beell
3:04 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
Another great pic Pablo!
Member Since: September 11, 2007 Posts: 142 Comments: 16478
892. pablolopez26
3:04 AM GMT on October 13, 2007


Wow... I remember this...
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891. 0741
3:03 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
only one weatherman here report that.other news did not
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890. shoreacres
9:59 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
SamTeam ~ we took it down to the studs, rebuilt, and sold about 2-3 years later to a real estate developer who bulldozed the dang thing to build one of those huge new houses! Now, I'm down on Clear Lake - had so much fun, I moved closer to the water. In the cat2 surge zone now, and believe me, I keep an eye out!
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889. SamTeam
10:00 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
Beell you're that close to SJR and didn't get flooded? WOW...that's lucky. Din't take it as if you were making light...amazement is more like it. Mother Nature as her worst. What worries me is if we get a 'cane. Our last one Alicia, was only a 3 and we didn't get hit full force and the City was a wreak.
Member Since: September 22, 2007 Posts: 0 Comments: 213
888. pablolopez26
3:01 AM GMT on October 13, 2007


Yup, us suburbinites got off quite easy eh!! :)
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887. kmanislander
2:59 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
The problem in Haiti is that deforestation for firewood and building has left huge areas prone to flooding and mudslides. It does not take a lot of bad weather to inflict fatalities there.

As for ex 94L it will be a watch and wait scenario. Nothing likely to happen tonight that's for sure
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886. beell
2:56 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
SA and ST,
We were lucky-had over 20 inches but located less than a mile from the San Jacinto River. We are at 55' elevation and the river at mean low water is about 10' Water runs off quick here. Did not mean to make light of this storm and the folks who lost.
Member Since: September 11, 2007 Posts: 142 Comments: 16478
885. SamTeam
9:55 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
shoreacres & Beell
Shore, sorry to hear you got hit so hard. That whole I 10 insdie the loop area got hit really hard. I had a listing (house for sale) in Timbergrove that had the same thing you did. Did you stay in the area? I sure hope we never experience that again.
Member Since: September 22, 2007 Posts: 0 Comments: 213
884. 0741
2:53 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
kman key is if move over water ex 94l i been watch it all afternoon and evening it have move very little. their report here on news that alot people have dead in haiti because of rain from area that pass over haiti
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883. kmanislander
2:54 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
You're welcome Miami

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882. Miamiweather
2:52 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
Ty kman i appreciate it as always like the pick
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881. shoreacres
9:49 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
Beell & SamTeam ~ Experienced Allison at T.C. Jester & 11th here, just north of I-10. Four feet of water in the house - came up out of a feeder for White Oak Bayou in 15 minutes. House, office, business inventory, vehicles - kaput! All of Timbergrove Manor on the east side of Jester looked like nothing had happened - until you opened a house or car door! Awful.
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880. Floodman
2:49 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
Well, it looked as though it would be tonight sometime, from this afternoon's visuals, though the models were showing 36 hours out...let me see what they're showing (I posted the first tonight from my iPhone...just can't surf the modeling sites as well on it)

BRB
Member Since: August 2, 2006 Posts: 10 Comments: 9922
879. SamTeam
9:51 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
Beell, lol you are so right. Wouldn't trade this city or the people in it for anything!
Member Since: September 22, 2007 Posts: 0 Comments: 213
878. kmanislander
2:50 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
Miami

Well, maybe you can relax for a bit now, right ? LOL
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877. beell
2:44 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
SamTeam,
it was bad and more than a few did drown as you know. And this was in a large city mostly well equipped to deal with it. Some places in CA may be in similar distress regardless of future track/intensity.

Beer trucks floating down I-10 is etched into my brain-followed by the videos of industrious and courageous citizens risking their lives to rescue the poor beer.
Thanks for the flashback lol
Member Since: September 11, 2007 Posts: 142 Comments: 16478
876. pcola
9:40 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
You guys, Ivan made a wimp out of me. It was the absoltley the worst! My husband and I traved by motorcycle because nothig else would travel the roads we had to go. It was amazing! Total destruction from every road. We went near the ciy and sewers stopped us. Flooded roads and horrible smells, (big foot?). It was the 1st experience of a hurricane and I NEVER want to see it again. Not to mention the taxes and inursance increase!
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875. kmanislander
2:47 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
0741

Like I said too many people think the past will repeat itself. Not so with weather. Too many variables.

However, the shear map is showing only 5 to 10 knots over the NW Caribbean including the Gulf of Honduras and the area where ex 94L is.

Still a chance for it IF it can reach water
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874. KoritheMan
2:46 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
kman miami already ask same question in chatroom that come he ask if 94l going to other wilma we tell him is not

Not likely, no. Like kman said, another Wilma could happen next year, but it could also happen in 50 years. We just don't know.
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873. Miamiweather
2:46 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
sorry 0741 you got me lol
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872. 0741
2:41 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
kman miami already ask same question in chatroom that come he ask if 94l going to other wilma we tell him is not
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871. kmanislander
2:44 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
Flood

Correct, but no doubt trying to figure out how to get offshore LOL
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870. kmanislander
2:42 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
stormybil

Not sure either. Once we pass mid Oct I pay less attention to models as tracks etc can become weird. Like crazy Lenny, the cat 4 hurricane that moved E through the central Caribbean in Nov and struck St Maarten and other islands on their W coasts !
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869. SamTeam
9:39 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
864. beell 9:38 PM CDT on October 12, 2007

TS Allison dropped 20-35 inches over a similar period here in Houston a few years ago. I was high and dry inside my suburban home and watched it on tv-what a struggle i endured.


Beell glad you were high & dry in the burbs. I was in my house in the Galleria area and dang near drown. Man that was some rain storm. Did you ever think you'd see tanker trucks and beer trucks floating down I10? The damage to the homes was like walking into a hurricane storm zone. It was unbelievable. I hope H town doesn't get anything like that again.
Member Since: September 22, 2007 Posts: 0 Comments: 213
868. Floodman
2:37 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
Howdy, folks...so x94L is still inland in Guatemala, I take it?
Member Since: August 2, 2006 Posts: 10 Comments: 9922
867. pcola
9:38 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
Beell, thanks but CA geography, we live in FLA. The great hurricane alley.
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866. stormybil
2:37 AM GMT on October 13, 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
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865. kmanislander
2:37 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
Interesting thing is that the surface pressure is still lower on shore Guatemala than offshore just E of belize. If ex 94L were to manage to get away from land any time soon it would not take much for it to spin up IMO
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864. beell
2:32 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
pcola, not up to speed on my CA geography, but have read a few 3 day rain totals of over 20 inches-I'm sure the folks under the clouds could tell you more than you wanted to hear.

TS Allison dropped 20-35 inches over a similar period here in Houston a few years ago. I was high and dry inside my suburban home and watched it on tv-what a struggle i endured.
Member Since: September 11, 2007 Posts: 142 Comments: 16478
863. stormybil
2:35 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
thanks kman
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862. kmanislander
2:33 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
Miami

Stop thinking about Wilma. No two years are the same and they will not produce the same systems even if they form in the same area. It might be 50 yrs before you see another Wilma, or it might be next year or so on, you get my drift.

All too often people assume that if something spins up at the same time of year and in the same area of a previously very intense system that the same will happen again.

Not so. The atmosphere is very dynamic and I doubt that conditions ever repeat themselves
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860. kmanislander
2:30 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
stormybil

Even if the trough lifts out the low is left behind. See the QS pass below.
I still think the NW Caribbean is not finished in so far as ex 94L is concerned. Very broad low still hanging around. Pressures in the Caymans in the 1006 and below range all week including today
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859. Miamiweather
2:29 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
ty kman so do you think it is possible this could turn into a wilma with regards to strenght
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858. pcola
9:23 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
New to posting to the blog but not new the blog. Beem watching (lurker) since Ivan, ivan surviror! I am not educated to weather but very intersted in learning. Been through turtorial at SJ'ssite and am trying to learn. Love the south but very scared of it. thanks for responding.
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857. kmanislander
2:27 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
Miami

Take a look at this quikscat pass that was just downloaded. The entire W and NW Caribbean is one big surface low. Not a closed low but a definite surface low. This area could still develop in time

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856. beell
2:27 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
Sorry pcola,
Not to much to say about it till it actually leaves CA and gets over water. Models do show some movement toward the Gulf Coast this week.
Most are hoping for some needed rains over the SE. Hope this finds you before you give up on us.
Member Since: September 11, 2007 Posts: 142 Comments: 16478
855. stormybil
2:24 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
just checked it looks like the trof is lifting north now so will this bring all the mostiure to the south upward toward the pinisular ? tia
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854. Miamiweather
2:24 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
hey kman what do you think of the nw carribean
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853. kmanislander
2:21 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
pcola

Whats up ?
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852. pcola
9:08 PM CDT on October 12, 2007
Are some of us invisible? Oh well, just life I guess! Invests, xxL, rotation, avatars, ULL, monser ULLs etc. I will keep lurking till I have the knowledge to write (talk) to you people.
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851. kmanislander
2:06 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
Ex 94L is stuck just N of the Guatemala/ El salvador border and still well inland
However, that places the circulation near enough to the Pacific and the W Caribbean to let it draw moisture from both those sources.

That is what seems to be sustaining the low for now and it is still vigorous enough to survive for a couple more days over land IMO
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849. moonlightcowboy
2:06 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
Have a good sleep, 456.
Member Since: July 9, 2006 Posts: 184 Comments: 29598
848. Weather456
10:03 PM AST on October 12, 2007
have a good night all
Member Since: July 24, 2005 Posts: 407 Comments: 19076
847. 0741
2:01 AM GMT on October 13, 2007
have low from 94l move over water it look like it still over land on coast ???
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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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