The opening of the both the North West Passage and the North East Passage is a very recent development in the Arctic. Back in the 19th century these sea passages were always clogged by the immensely thick accumulations of perennial sea ice that survived from one year to another. The thinning of the Arctic Ocean sea ice has been observed since 1950’s when the first nuclear submarines began to cross the Arctic Ocean beneath its sea ice as a part of the Cold War missile hide-and-seek games. The ending of the Cold War saw the first exchanges of the submarine measurements of the sea ice thicknesses and these revealed a consistent trend of the sea ice thinning. Up to 1990’s there were no notable reduction in the Arctic Ocean’s sea ice area that had seen some, very moderate shrinking since 1970’s. In 1990’s also the sea ice area began to shrink.

The 2002 sea ice saw a new record decrease in the area of the Northern Hemisphere sea ice, this record was then subsequently exceeded in 2005 and 2007 which saw the largest reduction in the sea ice area seen so far. The sea ice area after 2007 has never seen the sea ice to grow into size last seen before 2005. According to Cryosphere Today run by the University of Illinois, the 2010 sea ice area minimum was 3,072,000 km2 which was only 2.6% above the record sea ice area loss of 2007 which stood at 2,992,000 km2 (a bare 80,000 km2 or 2.6% above 2007 sea ice area minimum).

Despite 2.6% increase in the area of sea ice, the ice volume has continued to decrease, 2010 seeing the worst ever sea ice conditions. Pan Arctic Ice Ocean Modeling and Assimilation System (PIOMAS) of Polar Science Center at the University of Washington recorded in 2010 a sustained loss in the Arctic sea ice volume progressing since 2007 with the sea ice loss maximum peaking at a new record of 4 standard deviations away from the mean value. This shows the summer 2010 was a rare event that should not occur more frequently than once in every 15,570 years if it were just a random event. The Russian side of the Arctic Ocean has seen the sea ice being reduced to a fragmentary pancake ice which is extremely soft and close to the ice melting point.

When the ratio of open sea to ice covered sea has grown with ever greater amount of open water surfaces, the waves form more readily and they also do their damage on increasingly thinned ice. In addition, a localised vertical overturning of the ocean takes place as the wind push water against obstacles such as ice ridges or floes that deflect surface currents and waves pushed by wind that gets a far better grip on watery surface than smooth and melted, flat ice surfaces.

During the first ten days of September it was notable that the adjacent areas to the North Pole were largely open with the sea ice covering only 15-60% of the ocean’s surface. One area was between the North Pole and the Fram Straight and the other was a slightly smaller patch just behind the North Pole on the opposite direction from the North Pole towards the Bering Straight direction. According to Cryosphere Today this stopped only last 3-4 days ago when the freezing finally overtook the reverse processes that had been holding back the ice cover taking over the sea area there. This is important.

The importance of localised fluid dynamics on the phase boundary surfaces are very important and I quote the following that should explain the potential dangers of the increased thermal inertial transfers on the windier and more open ocean:

“Baikal, world’s deepest lake (depth over 1,700 metres) freezes only in January although the severe winter frosts begin already in November. Over 400 metres deep Lake Superior in the United States has its mid parts open throughout the winter despite of the fact that January mean temperature is -20C and the worst winter frosts see the thermometer falling to -40C. This is a consequence of continuing strong winds and that the large masses of water beneath surface store large quantities of heat. Lake Superior is over three times of Gulf of Finland.”
Jouko Alestalo: Jaalla on Voimaa (Ice Has Power) Tiede 2000 (Science 2000) 2/1988, page 29 column 1.

The ice-free circumnavigation of the North Pole has been only from 2009 and 2010 when both the North West Passage and the North East Passage have been simultaneously ice free. The North West passage through the northern Canadian Nunavut Archipelago was open in 2008 but then the North East Passage was blocked by ice making the full circumnavigation impossible without the help of ice breakers that can clear ships through thick ice. Before 2008 the Arctic Ocean had only once seen the opening the North West Passage and also this event happened within a decade prior to recent sea ice melting.

It was first time possible to circumnavigate the Arctic Ocean back in 2009. However, no ship attempted to do circumnavigation the last year. The first two commercial containerships made it through the North East passage in the summer 2009. There are currently a convoy of 7 container ships heading from Asia to Europe utilising the opening of the North East passage as this shortens the sea journey considerably from Asia as the shortest route would take the ships around the Indochina and through the Indonesian Archipelago and then via Suez Canal to the Mediterranean. The width of the Suez Canal restricts the size of the boat just like the next shortest route, the Panama Canal. This has been a major drawback for the larger boats that otherwise would benefit from the economies of scale, but the Canal imposed capacity constraints forcing them for the arduous trips around Africa (Cape of Good Hope) and South America (Cape Horn). These constraints are known in the shipping industry as the Suezmax and the Panamax. The latter passage has seen enlargement allowing more ships to pass across the Panamian Isthmus but many ships are over and above these canal enlargements and remain tempted to take a short cut along Russia’s north coast.

Summer 2010 has not only seen the first large commercial convoys of cargo vessels attempting to navigate to Europe along Russia’s northern sea coasts. At the moment there is a race between one Russian ship and one Norwegian ship to become the first ever sea vessels to circumnavigate the North Pole unaided. It is too early to say whether these attempts succeed due to uncertainties emanating from the drifting of sea ice and the onset of new winter freezes. The sea currents and winds contribute greatly to the navigability of the North East Passage as the sea ice is highly mobile and the drifting sea ice can easily close again the sea passage that had already once melted clear.

The 2010 race to circumnavigate the North Pole is the first of its kind although the Arctic Ocean’s perimeter melted off the coasts of the two continental mainlands already last year. The first North Pole and Arctic Ocean circumnavigation race is between a Norwegian and Russian ships.

Peter I is a Russian 18-metre steel hull ship that attempts and eastward navigation along the northern coast of Russia, Alaska and Canada. Peter I’s team consists seven men and one women attempting 23.000 km 12,500 nautical miles. Børge Ousland heads the Norwegian team, which has cleared the Russian coast, Alaskan coast and crossing the Canadian archipelago. It seems very likely that 2010 will see the first ever North Pole and the Arctic Ocean circumnavigation completed successfully. This race is also the sad result of the climatic warming destroying the frozen regions of the world.


  1. I would say break out your surfboards/boogeyboards but somehow I don’t think this will help *me being a smartypants*.

    I am flummoxed by this situation. Is there a solution to these melting polar ice caps? If there is a solution, is this to be done on an individual or global level? To have two or more people to agree on ANYTHING is monumentous, on a global scale this would wreak chaos. I just don’t know *scratches her head sadly*…

  2. The Arctic Ocean has started to re-freeze again and the broaken ice floes are now quickly re-joining by the first autumn frosts. The autumn equinox on 21. September saw the sun slip beneath horizon for the next six months making sure that the air cools. Even in Longyearbyen in Norway the winter darkeness lasts for 5 months without sun. When the media says that there is nothing to worry about the Arctic Ocean, that it is ice-covered as usual, do not believe them. Of course, due to lack of sunshine, it will always be cold there in the winter. The climate change is never going to take seasons away as these depend wholly on the Earth’s tilted axis that during summer points more towards the sun, and obviously the reverse happens in the winter when sun is hidden. But what will change is the air temperatures, the winter will not be as bitterly cold as it was before and thus the ice is thinner next spring. When it is the turn of the Arctic region to be pointed towards the sun, we will see the 24 hour sunshine melting the sea ice ever more intensely and Greenland impacted ever more severely by the ever warmer summers as snow and ice no longer reflect away sun’s heat as the used to. This is a really sad race around the North Pole and one the real explorers keep lamenting about despite all the new fun to go merrily around the North Pole.

  3. Dear Sherry [for your response 2.],

    Geoengineers are studying ways how the polar ice melting could be stopped. Is it possible? Is it safe? How effective its is? What side effects are there? How much such geoengineering programmes would cost? Who would pay for them? How about the constantly increasing load of greenhouse gases, would the geoengineering just “brush the dirt under carpet” and encourage even more pollution to be released, leading to catastrophic consequences when it eventually may fail to push back the climatic heating of the relased greenhouse gases (or if it had to be switched suddenly off due to some unexpected effects emerging in the long run)?