Arctic voyage finds global warming impact on ice and animals
The email arrived in mid-June, seeking to explode any notion that global warming might turn our Arctic expedition into a summer cruise.
"The most important piece of clothing to pack is good, sturdy and warm boots. There is going to be snow and ice on the deck of the icebreaker," it read. "Quality boots are key."
The Associated Press was joining international researchers on a month-long, 10,000 kilometer (6,200-mile) journey to document the impact of climate change on the forbidding ice and frigid waters of the Far North. But once the ship entered the fabled Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific, there would be nowhere to stop for supplies, no port to shelter in and no help for hundreds of miles if things went wrong. A change in the weather might cause the mercury to drop suddenly or push the polar pack into the Canadian Archipelago, creating a sea of rock-hard ice.
So as we packed our bags, in went the heavy jackets, insulated trousers, hats, mittens, woolen sweaters and the heavy, fur-lined boots.
Global warming or not, it was best to come prepared.
If parts of the planet are becoming like a furnace because of global warming, then the Arctic is best described as the world's air-conditioning unit. The frozen north plays a crucial role in cooling the rest of the planet while reflecting some of the sun's heat back into space.
Yet for several decades, satellite pictures have shown a dramatic decline in Arctic sea ice that is already affecting the lives of humans and animals in the region, from Inuit communities to polar bears. Experts predict that the impact of melting sea ice will be felt across the northern hemisphere, altering ocean currents and causing freak weather as far south as Florida or France.
"Things are changing in the Arctic, and that is changing things everywhere else," said David 'Duke' Snider, the seasoned mariner responsible for navigating the Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica through the Northwest Passage last month.
Researchers on the trip sought a first-hand view of the effects of global warming already seen from space. Even the dates of the journey were a clue: The ship departed Vancouver in early July and arrived in Nuuk, Greenland on July 29th, the earliest transit ever of a region that isn't usually navigable until later in the year.
As it made its way through the North Pacific, passing Chinese cargo ships, Alaskan fishing boats and the occasional far-off whale, members of the expedition soaked up the sun in anticipation of freezing weeks to come.
Twelve days after the ship had left Vancouver, the ice appeared out of nowhere.
At first, lone floes bobbed on the waves like mangled lumps of Styrofoam. By the time Nordica reached Point Barrow, on Alaska's northernmost tip, the sea was swarming with ice.
Snider recalled that when he started guiding ships through Arctic waters more than 30 years ago, the ice pack in mid-July would have stretched 50 miles farther southwest. Back then, a ship also would have encountered much thicker, blueish ice that had survived several summer melts, becoming hard as concrete in the process, he said.
He likened this year's ice to a sea of porridge with a few hard chunks, no match for the nimble 13,000-ton Nordica.
Since the first orbital images were taken in 1979, Arctic sea ice coverage during the summer has dropped by an average of about 34,000 square miles each year, almost the surface area of Maine or the country of Serbia. More recent data show that not only is its surface area shrinking, but the ice that's left is getting thinner too. Snider said he has seen the ice cover reduced in both concentration and thickness.
The melting ice is one reason why modern ships have an easier time going through the Northwest Passage, 111 years after Norwegian adventurer Roald Amundsen achieved the first transit. Early explorers found themselves blinded by harsh sunlight reflecting off a desert of white, confused by mirages that give the illusion of giant ice cliffs all around, and thrown off course by the proximity of the North Pole distorting their compass readings.
Modern mariners can get daily satellite snapshots of the ice and precise GPS locations that help them dodge dangerous shallows. But technology can be fickle. After two weeks at sea the ship's fragile Internet connection went down for six days: no emails, no Google, no new satellite pictures to preview the route ahead.
The outdoor thermometer indicated a temperature of 47 degrees Fahrenheit (8.3 Celsius), but in the never-setting sun of an Arctic summer it felt more like 60 F. Days blurred into nights. Distant smoke from Cape Bathurst signaled slow-burning shale fires, while giant white golf balls indicated the remains of Cold War radar stations.
At one point a row of shacks appeared on a hill. As the ship passed by Cambridge Bay, home to Canada's High Arctic Research Station, a brief cellphone signal flickered to life, allowing one homesick sailor to make a tearful call to his family.
The Finnish crew, meanwhile, took solace in the creature comforts of home, such as the on-board sauna and reindeer roast on Saturdays.
Even in their bunks, those on board heard the constant churning of ice as the ship plowed through the debris rolling beneath the hull, thundering like hail on a tin roof.