Friday, November 12, 2010

Northwest Passage ice treachery

I’m following the polar sailing expedition by Norwegian Børge Ousland and crew.  As they head for a first possible encounter with ice in the Northeast passage through the Yugorsky Strait (the Kara Strait is currently closed by ice) they are well prepared.

The Silent Sound, helmed by a group raising awareness of climate change in the Arctic, was among the 23 reported vessels that sailed through the Northwest Passage in 2009. (Photo from CBS article submitted by the expedition's Cameron Dueck)
Not all boats are as well prepared it seems. CBS News has reported the concerns of the Canadian Coastguard that the Arctic and the Northwest Passage in particular is becoming an attractive adventure for boats that are often ill-equipped and inadequately prepared for the dangers. Rescue by a coast guard ship is very expensive. 
“Last summer, the crew of a 12-metre sailboat radioed that they were in danger of being crushed by ice. They wanted the icebreaker right away. The closest icebreaker was two days of sailing from them,” he said. “Finally the ice broke up and they could escape.” Full story here:
A summary of boats attempting the NW Passage in 2009 can be found on Explorers Web –this included the 40-foot Silent Sound, whose trip was part-sponsored by the WWF.
It’s not just whether the ice melt is sufficient to allow passage of boats,  ice moves in response to weather.  One of last year’s successful passages describes it well:
“That evening’s ice chart was amazing: there was a clear lead on the east side of Peel Sound, which ran all the way down to and past King William Island. The next morning we headed off. [...] What the charts showed to be ice-free was now before us slowly turning into two-tenths coverage. It very quickly worked its way up to nine-tenths. As quickly as it filled in front of us, it came in behind us, blocking any retreat to the north.  [...] The next morning we walked out onto the ice and took stock of our predicament [...] Where we were once a mile and a half off the beach, we were now only half a mile off and the pressure of ice building up to our west was slowly pushing us towards the rocks.”
They pushed their way out despite risking damage – five hours to get three miles off before they once again became firmly stuck. The next morning the GPS showed they had drifted seven miles with the ice overnight and several hours later they were back in clear water. They were fortunate (full story here).
Attempts this year include one using a RIB (rigid inflatable boat) and powered by bioethanol, two men in 17.5 foot open boats, and (my favourite) a solo voyage by Captain Tommy D Cook, in the “Cap’n Lem“.  He is an experienced sailor and Master mariner and, unintentionally, quite a philosopher; his blog is a delight.

An iceberg towers over Cap'n Lem (Photo Tommy Cook)
Meanwhile, according to a report in the Daily Telegraph, helped by ice-free water, archaeologists using sonar images have located the British ship that was sent to search for two lost vessels that were part of Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated 1845 Royal Navy expedition to discover the Northwest Passage (the website of former Canadian IceBreaker Polar Prince carries a good summary of the Franklin Expedition and the modern-day search for remains of the ill-fated ship).  HMS Investigator was deployed in 1850 with a 66-man crew, but was eventually abandoned after being locked in the grip of Arctic ice for two winters.
“The first successful trip through the passage was recorded more than 50 years later by the Norwegian sailing and fishing boat Gjoa, captained by Roald Amundsen. It took the 21-metre vessel three years to travel east to west through the passage, wintering twice at Gjoa Haven and at King Point.  The next craft to make the trip was the Royal Canadian Mounted Police wooden auxiliary schooner St-Roch, which made the first west-to-east transit of the passage from 1940 to 1942, wintering at Walker Bay and Pasley Bay. The same boat made the third successful trip through the passage and the first done in one season, in 1944.  There were only five transits of the passage in the 1950s, 10 in the 1960s — nine of them in 1969 — but there were almost 70 in the 1990s.  The most crossings in a single year were recorded in 2009, when 23 boats, two of them yachts, made the passage. That record is expected to be broken this year.” (CBS)
The Northwest Passage is not yet open this year.  This year’s seasonal outlook for North American Arctic Waters (from Environment Canada here) reports low levels of old ice in key areas of the passage but predicts:
“…the lack of old ice in the northern portions of M’Clure Strait and Viscount Melville Sound coupled with the thinner than normal first-year ice measured in the Western Arctic will allow for the thicker multi-year ice to leave the Archipelago area and move southward into the Northwest Passage.”
Now if you’d asked me I’d have suggested 2007 as a year of minimum ice in the NW Passage, but apparently it was 1998 (graph below). Interesting that the maximum coverage is less than 30%, and that there is no real pattern to the last 30 years.

Historical ice data for the Northwest passage (Source Environment Canada).
The cry over the Arctic ice melt may be ” it’s worse than we thought”, but some of us think it won’t last (see “They believe it is cyclical”).
M White says:
Another NW Passage expedition delayed – “The trip has been delayed by 13 day’s, which means the new departure date is now the 28th August – Mother Nature is responsible for the delay, but fingers crossed it will be smooth sailing from the 28th onwards!”

Norwegian explorer Børge Ousland and Thorleif Thorleifson have set off in a 30 ft trimaran to circumnavigate the polar ice sheet.  Leaving Oslo on June 23rd they were provisioned for a non-stop voyage, however waymarks on their planned itinerary are:
  • July 25 Murmansk, Russia, sailing through the Barents Sea, South of Novaya Zemlya and into the Kara Sea, passing between Cape Chelyuskin and Ostrov Dikson where the ice is most likely to block the Northeastern Passage in early August, then sailing on into the Laptev Sea.
  • August 15 Tiksi in the Siberian Sea.
  • August 25 Pevek then crossing the Chuckchi Sea
  • Sept 1 Point Barrow, Alaska, then along the Canadian coast to Banks Island where conditions will dictate if they can attempt the passage
  • Sept 25 Pond Inlet, Baffin Island, then across Baffin Bay
  • October 1 Nuuk, Greenland, after which they will head back to Norway round the southern tip of Greenland and Iceland.

Map of the Northwest Passage (Source: Canadian Geographic)
According to the publicity blurb this is a world record attempt to sail both passages of the North Pole in a single voyage, which has been impossible for 400 years [Ah! an allusion to the Medieval Warm Period].  Global warming has now melted the polar ice cap to the point that a voyage is possible.  They plan to use the expedition to…
“create a global platform for empowering people to better understand climate change”
It will be “reality television meets climate change” – Google is one of the sponsors. Links include Børge’s website/blog, Facebook and Twitter.
“The issue of global warming, and the fact that our voyage passes through some of the least charted waters on Earth, is sure to generate added interest.  [...] When we sail the Arctic Ocean, we’ll witness everything first hand.”  Aaargh!
So what are their chances? It is a bit difficult to tell from the images below, but the last three years have allowed limited access through both passages.

Arctic sea ice at minimum extent 2006-2009 (Source: Cryosphere Today)
Not Lewis Pugh in his kayak this time, these guys know what they are doing, with a double skinned, kevlar-reinforced hull and Thorlief is a veteran sailor and former Naval Officer.  Still it will be interesting to follow: plenty of weather reports are available for the areas in question and satellite images of ice conditions, never mind the tweets and clucks and, no doubt, media crowing.
So, I wish them well. I hope they have a safe voyage – I really do, but do I wish them success? Well let me say this, if they do succeed I hope it is despite the ice conditions not because of them (I mean only that I don’t want to see another record melt season). Although doubtless a message of another ‘record’ ice melt will be sent out with such success by the media regardless.  [Updates: July 31; August 16]

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