Fabled Northwest Passage begins to re-freeze

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

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.

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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147. cattlebaroness
4:03 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
Is it unusual for a system to back track on S. Africa, like that one by African coast is suppose to do?
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146. LightningCharmer
4:23 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
When using Dr. Masters' blog, please refrain from posting material not relevant to the discussion of tropical weather, or the topic of the blog entry itself. Please do not engage in personal attacks or bickering. Material not conforming to these standards should be flagged with the button and ignored.

Umm...Topic of Blog...

Tropical update; fabled Northwest Passage begins to re-freeze
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145. Hhunter
4:21 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
i now believe that 94L will become noel and threaten the conus in some fashion. thoughts comments..
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143. LakeShadow
4:18 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
so its a blob not worth investigating?
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142. tampaENG
4:01 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
Hooray for a warmer Earth!
Why stop it or fight about what caused it?
Greenhouse = more food
Looking forward to Canadian and British wines.
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141. LakeShadow
4:15 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
Yeah michael STL the long range forecast here seems right on, but these individual invests and td's keep fooling us! The La Nina fooled us... Just 2 weeks ago the tropics were a hotbed! Now its a graveyard. We were sure something was becoming Noel.. but to no avail...oops!
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140. Floodman
4:12 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
132. LakeShadow 4:10 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
Thank you floodman..what do you make of it?

when I first noted it this morning it looked anomalously strong (rotation wise) fro a feature below 10N; as it's built convection though, and the spin becomes less visible, it looks less organized. As it is, though, it's a little too far out and little too far south to be an issue...despite the weird weather this season I think the odds of a long track storm in the CONUS are minimal...the Antilles will get something out of it like as not, but despite the favorable conditions, SSTs etc., it's too far away, too far south, there's a TUTT in the way and it's too small...

Ouch! Did I just predict on a storm? Man, first I do an update this morning, and now I'm doing predictions...should I order another oven roasted crow?
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139. CosmicEvents
4:04 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
Talk about global warming is welcome on the Dr.s blog. He talks about it himself...often. I think he's devoted more words to it this season then talking about the weather. You can flag all the comments you want but admin won't do a thing. If you'd rather not read the comments, then use the ignore feature. As for me, I'm not going to talk about it any more, as I've said all that I basically think on the subject.
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136. Hhunter
4:01 PM GMT on October 12, 2007

thoughts from dr bill gray even dr. neil frank

anyone heard of these guys...
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134. TheCaneWhisperer
4:06 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
I'm trying to remember when 13 Named storms with 2 Cat 5's was considered a minimal season. Doesn't seem so minimal to me and it's not even over yet.
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133. Weather456
12:10 PM AST on October 12, 2007
TD 15

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132. LakeShadow
4:09 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
Thank you floodman..what do you make of it?
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131. DallasGumby
4:09 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
119. MichaelSTL 3:57 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
In addition, regardless of your views as to whether burning fossil fuels is actually doing anything to the climate, I think we can all agree that we do need to find an alternative source of energy, given that fossil fuels cause other forms of pollution as well and are non-renewable, meaning that when they are gone they are gone; then what do we do? Economic collapse, on a scale that makes the Great Depression look like a good time, seems likely if they run out or become economically infeasible before we have alternative sources of energy. $3 a gallon gas will likely seem very cheap in 10 years or so... and gas is just one of many things that use fossil fuels (which is almost everything, including many non-energy uses)...

Agreed we need to develop alternative energy sources. The free market will do that wonderfully.

But, we're not running out of fossil fuel sources any time soon. Not in 10 years. Probably not in our lifetimes or the lifetimes of our children, their children, and their children -- so, threatening a redux of the Great Depression is nothing but scare tactics (the same sort of thing you blame the media about). We're not going to wake up one day and suddenly learn we're out of oil. In fact, I know the Peak Oil debate rages, but any analyst who understands global reserves knows that we haven't reached Peak Oil; and there are reserves of coal which will last centuries.

Remember when the first Earth Day was held? We were told the earth would be out of oil by 2000!!! LOL!!!

However, AGAIN, I am all for development of non-fossil fuel based energy sources which are cleaner and more efficient; and, we'll do that long before there's a lack of hydrocarbon-based fuels.

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130. Floodman
4:06 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
115. LakeShadow 3:55 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
Anyone see anything along the itcz about half way between Africa and S. America?

Yep, 9N40W...moving wnw
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129. stormmaven
4:05 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
You know hurricane season is over when Jeff Masters is discussing Artic ice .
It seems that FEMA's hurricance damage prevention program is working.
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127. sporteguy03
4:04 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
Dr.Masters well done blog, very enjoyable to read TIA for all your work and dedication to WU Everyday. It is truly a pleasure to read your blog.
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126. LakeShadow
4:02 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
TampaBayfisher, everyone's baffeled. This is unprecidented weather anomolies...everything thats supposed to happen isnt..mother nature is a cruel mistress...
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125. CatastrophicDL
4:00 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
The Cuba blob is looking really strong and doesn't seem to be moving too fast. Is the trough in the GOM helping keep it more stationary?
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124. TampaBayfisher
3:56 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
Where were all of the storms we were supposed to see this year? Why was this season minimal again? Rather disappointed at all of the hype. Someone should be canned.
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123. cchsweatherman
4:01 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
NoNamePub, read my comment above for my opinion on this entire mess.
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122. NRAamy
8:58 AM PDT on October 12, 2007
120. NoNamePub 8:58 AM PDT on October 12, 2007

Looks as if there has been some banning.
Not seeing about half the posts.

My point exactly....hysterical rants are not necessary...
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118. NRAamy
8:53 AM PDT on October 12, 2007
My opinion is this is a weather blog, other things are not appropriate here.

cattle, I agree...but all people need to do is use the FLAG option...there is no need to attack people... Admin can take the appropriate actions if needed...
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117. Michfan
3:55 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
Its also the reason the NHC favors the GFDL quite a bit too when it comes to its official forecast tracks jam.
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116. DallasGumby
3:55 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
107. MichaelSTL 3:48 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
Also, with the references to the 1970s and supposed global cooling, that was mostly media hype... no scientists actually ever called for global cooling back then

C'mon, Michael, you know better than that.

How about this:
To scientists, these seemingly disparate incidents represent the advance signs of fundamental changes in the world’s weather. Meteorologists disagree about the cause and extent of the trend, as well as over its specific impact on local weather conditions. But they are almost unanimous in the view that the trend will reduce agricultural productivity for the rest of the century. If the climatic change is as profound as some of the pessimists fear, the resulting famines could be catastrophic.

“A major climatic change would force economic and social adjustments on a worldwide scale,” warns a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences, “because the global patterns of food production and population that have evolved are implicitly dependent on the climate of the present century.”

A survey completed last year by Dr. Murray Mitchell of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reveals a drop of half a degree in average ground temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere between 1945 and 1968. According to George Kukla of Columbia University, satellite photos indicated a sudden, large increase in Northern Hemisphere snow cover in the winter of 1971-72. And a study released last month by two NOAA scientists notes that the amount of sunshine reaching the ground in the continental U.S. diminished by 1.3% between 1964 and 1972.

From Newsweek, "The Cooling World" April 28, 1975.

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115. LakeShadow
3:55 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
Anyone see anything along the itcz about half way between Africa and S. America?
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113. jamnkats
3:50 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
It looks like the GFDL was spot on AGAIN with Mexico weather. So far, the GFDL is my model of choice. It was spot on with Dean and Felix. I couldn't believe the loop it initially forecast for 94L but it totally came true. Now I guess we wait to see what happens tomorrow.
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112. cattlebaroness
3:40 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
Sorry guys, posted that comment before I read what happened last night. My opinion is this is a weather blog, other things are not appropriate here. jmo
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110. Spetrm
3:46 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
Thanks for all that info on the Northern passages Dr. Great read!
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109. CosmicEvents
3:43 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
My position on global warming is that I don't know with 100% certainty that it's a fallacy, or a fact. I'm not a scientist in this area, and I doubt any of you are either. Even amongst the scientists, there's disagreeing opinions. The fact that Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize to me lends some substantial credibility to the issue, and it shows me that a great majority of the credible scientists do believe that it's fact, not fallacy. To me it just makes common sense to try to lower our polluting behaviors just in case it is a fact. Not sure why the Republicans decided to politicize this issue. It really has nothing to do with politics.
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108. saltmarsh
3:48 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
My dumb WU reason for not evacuating from Katrina: 2005 hurricane season was my introduction to Weather Underground. I was fascinated and had stayed up most of the night for three nights reading Steve Gregory's and Dr. Masters blogs and comments prior to Katrina, then worked on Saturday night. Sunday the roads were gridlocked outbound and I was too tired to face trying to get anywhere. I was a block from the beach on Monday and mostly dozed through the storm waking from time to time to take note of the intensity of the storm. Immediately to the south of me a 120 unit apartment complex was washed away by the storm. I am guessing that this information overload was not an isolated experience. Anybody else have a WU pres-storm fatigue story?
I kept Steve's postings leading up to Katrina landfall for a long time (wish I had printed them out) until that computer failed about a year ago.
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105. Macmcf
3:46 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
Re: "When is the last time the Northwest Passage was open?"
Come on, Doc, I know you have to tow the party line, but "5,000-7,000 years ago"? What about the Medieval Warm Period, from A.D. 900 to 1300, when, among other things, Leif Erickson et al. settled Greenland (later abandoned) and the French imposed tariffs on imported British wines. (When was the last time you tasted a good English wine?) We have enough historical records to know that CURRENT temperatures are not unprecedented. Maybe those that can be projected in the future will exceed these, but what we have now certainly are not!
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104. catwomen
3:36 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
Any views on where the Bermuda storm will track? I was surprised when I saw invest 97 near the canary islands and then we have td 15 in the Atlantic. I wonder if anything will come out of these disturbances?
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102. Michfan
3:40 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
Good morning all. Need more coffee!!!!

The blob in the W Carribean looks interesting indeed. Looks like we may have a wanderer.
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100. Floodman
3:31 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
57. TampaSpin 3:19 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
My last comment on Global warming. True we have only data for a short period of time, but we all know that many years ago the pollutiants we see today was not around. Therefore what we have created in this short time is unlike anyother period of time also.

This my ONLY comment on the environmenatal discussion that was raging in here a few minutes ago:

Ice core samples from deep in the Antarctic reveal greenhouse gas fluxes, up and down over far longer periods than just that of the current day; the current upswing in greenhouse gases is only comparable to times of mega-volcanism; yes, the oceans can soak up CO2 and other gases and hold them in solution, but like a sponge, there is a breaking point where no more gases can be held.

Only a fool would say that what we're seeing is a "natural fluctuation" when we look around and see the amount of pollutants being dumped into the environment. No, it's likely not as bad as the environmentalists say it is, but to say it isn't happening at all insults my intelligence...

One final thing: if it isn't happening, then why is our ultra conservative administration making so much noise about it? Because the studies they see aren't all "sweetness and light" either...wake up! The answer isn't to deny everything and buy a bigger SUV (a la Rush Limbaugh)...it's to pay attention, look around, and read all the studies, not just the ones that support your position...

**steps down off soapbox, picks up soapbox, and puts it away**

Now, how about them tropics, huh?
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98. patriots2007
3:39 PM GMT on October 12, 2007
Yes they did,amazing huh?
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Dr. Masters co-founded wunderground in 1995. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters 1986-1990. Co-blogging with him: Bob Henson, @bhensonweather

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