The Arctic Ocean is the smallest and shallowest of the oceans, its salinity limited by the fresh water flowing into it from rivers and melting ice. It also has the most constant temperature of any ocean, the “polar opposite” of the Antarctic, which sees extreme shifts. Even though 55 million years ago its climate was tropical, since then the Arctic grew much colder, but now it’s warming again: it has already seen the highest temperatures this year since records began in 1900, and it's only April.
The region was first described in 325BC by the Greek geographer Pytheas of Massilia or Marseille in Eschate Thule. He wrote about a place where the sun shone for only three hours a day and water was replaced by a substance where a person could neither walk nor sail. It has been suggested that he was describing a voyage to northern Norway or Scotland, as part of a circumnavigation of Britain.
A professor at the University of Colorado has produced an alarming computer model that projects the changes in Arctic sea ice by 2100 if climate change continues at its present rate: there will be at least 200 more days of open water than there are now. Good news for giant cruise ship operators; bad news for polar bears, walruses, and other animals that live on sea ice. They (animals, not cruise ship operators) have been observed crowding onto beaches, further endangering their now overcrowded, under-resourced colonies.
Furthermore, those beaches, in fact the whole coastline of the area, are getting smaller, threatening settlements along the shores of the Arctic Ocean, because until now the sea ice has protected the land from erosion by waves. Less sea ice, more erosion. Ultimately, this is bad news for everyone, residents of the area and passengers on those visiting cruise ships who come to see the polar bears, seals, and other creatures of the polar eco-system. Since the Northwest Passage across the top of North America and the Northern Sea Route across the top of Russia are now navigable, nations along the coasts are scrambling for more icebreakers. The US has only two Arctic icebreakers, one of which is nearing the end of its working life. Russia, on the other hand, has 40 active icebreakers. Canada has 15 ships capable of acting as icebreakers, but only two are less than 30 years old and the flagship of our Coast Guard, the CCGS Louis St Laurent, is 44 years old. The proposed name for the one in production—the John G Diefenbaker—perhaps suggests how long it’s been planned….
Unfortunately, it isn't just cruise ships that threaten the ecosystem of the Northwest Passage. A disturbing report in Canadian Geographic says that China has announced that it plans to use the route for cargo shipping. China recently signed a free-trade agreement with Iceland and a $2 billion mining deal with Greenland, signs that it plans more involvement in the area. China is not known for its commitment to environmental protection.
Further east, around Greenland, the melt season has begun about six weeks earlier than usual: warm temperatures and rain have caused 12% of the southwest ice sheet to begin its annual melt now instead of in late May or early June. The previous earliest date for the melt, defined as more than 10% of the ice sheet turning to water, was May 5th, in 2010.
This dramatic increase in the ice melting has literally shifted the planet on its axis: the poles have always moved, depending on all kinds of natural factors, but since 2000 they have lurched much more dramatically as melting ice redistributes the volume of water. Why does this matter? It matters because the location of the poles affects GPS, used for navigation, and astronomical observations and calculations. The more violently the location of the poles shifts, the more complex these calculations will be.
It’s not just nations with a direct link to the Arctic that are studying changes there. Researchers from India’s IndARC have positioned a permanent observation station in the water column of the Kongsfjorden, 1100 kilometres from the North Pole. It will monitor changes in temperature, salinity, and current in order to predict variables in the sub-continent’s monsoon system, thousands of kilometres away.
A multidisciplinary team from the US and Germany is trying to raise $65 million for a 13-month research trip in 2019, hoping to float with the ice pack in a specially built ship, and discover more about the climate in transition.
Scientists and tourists aren’t the only ones interested in the new navigation possibilities in the Arctic: four big oil companies have asked the Canadian government to review the Canada Petroleum Resources Act, which limits their $500 million licenses to five years. They originally appealed to the former Conservative government, which agreed to hold the hearings in secret, and the Liberals must now decide whether to hear arguments in public. And, of course, where there is ocean there is also commercial fishing. Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama recently announced that they will ask Russia to join a binding international agreement to ban commercial fishing in the Arctic. Currently, the three countries, plus Norway and Denmark, have a voluntary ban but it is crucial that countries like China, Japan, and Spain—all huge maritime harvesters—also agree to stay out of the Arctic.
It could be argued that tourism in the Arctic should be limited as well. This spring, the Canadian Coast Guard practiced for a large-scale disaster: the sinking of a cruise ship with hundreds of passengers in the frigid waters. As well as human life saving, such a rescue would have to cope with oil slicks and other environmental issues, so it’s best to be prepared because it will happen one day. If you have $15,000 (extra if you want the Shackleton or One Ocean Suite) per person, plus airfare to Iqaluit, you can join 5 Gyres’ expedition through the Northwest Passage this summer, on a Russian research vessel with trips by Zodiac raft to monitor plastic pollution in the area. If you’d rather just cruise, Discover the World will take you through the Passage for $20,711 plus airfare….