northwest-passage-arctic-ice-extent-noaa imageryThe famed Northeast passage, shipping lanes through the Arctic Ice, is now open for cargo traffic between Europe and Asia, says Russia’s environmental agency, the Federal Hydrometeorological and Environmental Monitoring Service, in a recent press release. The news comes as record ice melt has been recorded in the Arctic region pushing total ice cover to a record low, opening this week “almost the entire northern sea route to icebreaker-free shipping”.

The ice extent, which is an average of several days data on the Arctic ice coverage,  is over 50 percent less than average in some areas, allowing ships to “very easily” navigate the region through September, said the scientists in Russia. The following ice extent graph from  National Snow Ice Data Center in Colorado confirms much of the findings from yesterday’s press:

NSIDC arctic-sea-ice-extent-data-graph

Melting ice makes it easier for European companies to ship goods to Asia. The Rotterdam to Yokohama, for example. is one-third shorter via the Arctic than the voyage through the Suez Canal, saving both time and fuel. This news follows Iceland’s announcement last year that the pace of global warming in the Arctic was three-times faster than elsewhere and this year’s Arctic Council meeting which explored new uses for, and regulation of, Arctic shipping routes.

Melting occurred “at a rapid pace through the first half of July and is now tracking below the year 2007, which saw the record minimum,” the U.S. National Snow and Data Center said on its website July 18.

A Record Arctic Passage

Three of sixteen groups of oceanic scientists expected the news and have been preparing voyages to measure the ice’s extent.  They expect the ice melt this year to break the record low of 4.14 million square kilometers (1.63 million miles) reached on Sept. 16, 2007, said the Alaska-based Arctic Research Consortium of the U.S., (Arcus) on its website.  That compares with about 6.86 million square kilometers today, according to the Russian agency.

For Russia, the opening of the Northeast Passage is of national importance.

According to Bloomburg, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has vowed to transform the Soviet-era Arctic route, first plied in 1932 between Arkhangelsk and the Bering Strait, into a year-round passage and commodity producers including OAO GMK Norilsk Nickel, OAO Novatek and EuroChem have already starting sending test shipments. With the help of icebreakers, the route is currently used from July to November.

Within a few decades, the North Pole may be completely ice-free in summer, rather than by 2080… a prediction made last year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Russia’s chief forecaster, Alexander Frolov.

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