A few months ago, I wrote about the declining Arctic sea ice and suggested that the whole area up there needs a caretaker. Seems that someone actually heard me. Some folks over at the US federal government, of all places, voted recently to close as-yet unexplored United States-owned Arctic Ocean waters to commercial fishing as a preventative measure against the uncertainty of melting sea ice and changing ecosystems. This might have been the first time the government signed something into action and just about no one objected. Environmental groups, commercial fishing groups, and the NY Times Editorial page all applauded this decision, which determined that the marine ecosystems off the north shores of Alaska are too poorly understood to open them to fishing exploration. Subsistence fishing by indigenous groups is exempt, as are fishermen operating within three miles of the coastline. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council effectively hung a big ‘SHUT UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE’ sign on the rest of the ocean that falls within the United States’ Exclusive Economic Zone, up to 200 miles from the coastline. There’s a potential treasure chest of Arctic char, salmon, and cod down there, but it looks like we won’t be eating from it any time soon.
This move deals proactively, rather than re-actively, with a rapidly shifting climate that is demanding new ways of understanding environmental management all over the globe. The Arctic is one of the best places for long-term proactive planning since its surface is changing measurably by the day. A German trawler took the opportunity, for instance, to be the first to plow through broken floating ice and complete a maritime Arctic shipping passage this week between Europe and Asia, along the northern edge of Russia. This Northeast Passage, or Northern Sea Route (as opposed to the famed but as of yet un-traversed Northwest Passage between Europe and Asia), isn’t exactly smooth sailing, given the equally challenging gigantic icebergs and Russian permit-wielding bureaucrats. I suspect German ships won’t be the only ones making this summer trip over the coming years in the name of commerce though. The voyage from China to Europe via the Arctic is 3,000 miles shorter than via the Suez Canal. Marco Polo just rolled over in his grave.
So between the anxiety about newly opened fishing waters and uncharted shipping routes, how’s the Arctic sea ice looking these days? You’d think that with all of this political and economic activity we’d be seeing a completely ice-free summer. Au contraire.
Back in July, I mentioned that the projected minimum sea ice extent this year would be slightly above the historic low in 2007, when the polar ice cap shrunk to 4.1 million square kilometers. Not so. September is the month in which sea ice reaches a yearly minimum, usually sometime in the next week or so, which is why many of us (ok, really just a handful) are currently watching the sea ice retreat by the hour. Last year, the ice mass retreated to its smallest size — 4.7 million sq km — during the week of September 12. If you have found yourself with little else to do these days, you might consider checking out the daily data being gathered by the National Snow and Ice Data Center charting the ice’s progress as many Arctic researchers are doing now. What will remain after this month’s big melt has finished is perennial sea ice, or the ice that usually sticks around year after year – the really thick stuff – and it’s estimated there will be 5 million sq km of it left at September’s end.
What do we have to thank for this generous remnant ice, which, while still much lower than the 30-year average of 6.7 million sq km, is not nearly as low as some feared? Over the last month, a low-pressure system swept in over the North Pole and has kept the direct sun at bay, preventing some melting. Low pressure also means the winds are blowing counter-clockwise up there, against the general direction of ice flow. This spreads the ice around a bit more, creating a larger extent, but it’s also creating more open-water areas that may increase the melting rate. Overall though, this is a smidgen of good news for a place usually dismissed as dismal. But perhaps not for Marco Polo’s descendants — looks like a Northwest Passage trading voyage will have to be postponed yet again since this September’s available route is still too treacherous for travel. At least the Canadians have another year to hammer up some ‘NO TRESPASSING’ signs.
Originally posted on The Faster Times, September 14, 2009
Images from National Snow and Ice Data Center
**Author’s note: It was brought to my attention that the Northwest Passage has in fact been traversed over water, by icebreakers. It’s also been traversed, historically speaking, over ice, as Roald Amundsen first did in 1903. But as the melting sea ice has offered new opportunities to cross the Arctic Ocean over water, the Northeast Passage is proving to be more accessible to commerce ships, though they too still need to travel with icebreakers. We don’t yet know with what regularity commerce ships will be able to cross either passage, and do it without the assistance of icebreakers.