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Northwest Passage opens

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  • Phelps Hobart
    The Northwest Passage is a series of interconnected waterways among ice-encrusted islands. Covered with 2-metre-thick sea ice through the winter, it becomes
    Message 1 of 3 , Sep 15 7:12 PM

      The Northwest Passage is a series of interconnected waterways among ice-encrusted islands. Covered with 2-metre-thick sea ice through the winter, it becomes more or less accessible to ships during the summer months. The old dream of a direct route between Europe and Asia is the attraction of this northerly passage; the passage is 9000 km shorter than the Panama Canal route and 17 000 km shorter than that around Cape Horn.

      An open Northwest passage has extensive ramifications - both for commerce and militarily. Besides the opportunity for passage there are the natural resources to harvest.
      This is big news and definitely has consequences for overseas shipping and rail traffic in the Americas.


      Arctic ice melt opens Northwest Passage

      By JAMEY KEATEN, Associated Press WriterSat Sep 15, 6:44 PM ET

      Arctic ice has shrunk to the lowest level on record, new satellite images show, raising the possibility that the Northwest Passage that eluded famous explorers will become an open shipping lane.

      The European Space Agency said nearly 200 satellite photos this month taken together showed an ice-free passage along northern Canada, Alaska and Greenland, and ice retreating to its lowest level since such images were first taken in 1978.

      The waters are exposing unexplored resources, and vessels could trim thousands of miles from Europe to Asia by bypassing the Panama Canal. The seasonal ebb and flow of ice levels has already opened up a slim summer window for ships.

      Leif Toudal Pedersen, of the Danish National Space Center, said that Arctic ice has shrunk to some 1 million square miles. The previous low was 1.5 million square miles, in 2005.

      "The strong reduction in just one year certainly raises flags that the ice (in summer) may disappear much sooner than expected," Pedersen said in an ESA statement posted on its Web site Friday.

      Pedersen said the extreme retreat this year suggested the passage could fully open sooner than expected — but ESA did not say when that might be. Efforts to contact ESA officials in Paris and Noordwik, the Netherlands, were unsuccessful Saturday.

      A U.N. panel on climate change has predicted that polar regions could be virtually free of ice by the summer of 2070 because of rising temperatures and sea ice decline, ESA noted.

      Russia, Norway, Denmark, Canada and the United States are among countries in a race to secure rights to the Arctic that heated up last month when Russia sent two small submarines to plant its national flag under the North Pole. A U.S. study has suggested as much as 25 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas could be hidden in the area.

      Environmentalists fear increased maritime traffic and efforts to tap natural resources in the area could one day lead to oil spills and harm regional wildlife.

      Until now, the passage has been expected to remain closed even during reduced ice cover by multiyear ice pack — sea ice that remains through one or more summers, ESA said.

      Researcher Claes Ragner of Norway's Fridtjof Nansen Institute, which works on Arctic environmental and political issues, said for now, the new opening has only symbolic meaning for the future of sea transport.

      "Routes between Scandinavia and Japan could be almost halved, and a stable and reliable route would mean a lot to certain regions," he said by phone. But even if the passage is opening up and polar ice continues to melt, it will take years for such routes to be regular, he said.

      "It won't be ice-free all year around and it won't be a stable route all year," Ragner said. "The greatest wish for sea transportation is streamlined and stable routes."

      "Shorter transport routes means less pollution if you can ship products from A to B on the shortest route," he said, "but the fact that the polar ice is melting away is not good for the world in that we're losing the Arctic and the animal life there."

      The opening observed this week was not the most direct waterway, ESA said. That would be through northern Canada along the coast of Siberia, which remains partially blocked.


      Associated Press Writer Louise Nordstrom in Stockholm, Sweden, contributed to this report.


      On the Net:


      Northwest Passage - water routes through the Arctic... more

      Yahoo! Shortcut - About


      1. The Northwest Passage is a sea route through the Arctic Ocean along the ... passages from the Northwest Coast and confirmed that there was no such passage ...
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      4. Maps of the Northwest Passage. Modern day northwest passage routes and routes by Roald Amundsen ... The Northwest Passage is a famous sea route linking the ...
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      6. ... took two ships to search for the elusive Northwest Passage from 1845 to 1848. ... Exploration of the Northwest Passage, Canadian Arctic Profiles, Canada's Digital ...
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      8. Northwest Passage: historical sea passage of the North American continent, ... The Northwest Passage. from the Arctic article. The northern passages ...
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    • capt.ob@comcast.net
      Dear Phelps, An Icelandic Great Uncle of mine (My Maternal Grandmother is from Iceland) made the Northwest Passage trip east to west with Roal Amundson aboard
      Message 2 of 3 , Sep 16 10:20 AM
        Dear Phelps, An Icelandic Great Uncle of mine (My Maternal Grandmother is from Iceland) made the Northwest Passage trip east to west with Roal Amundson aboard the Goya (a Danish sailing ship)My buddy Butch Wheat sailed as Boatswain in the S.S.Manhattan (an S.I.U. tanker) sometime in the early sixties when that ship made the transit..I have transited ice when I was Boatswain in a Victory ship in 1965. The USCG Eastwind led our ship to Antarctica....God Bless, OBIE
      • Pacific Merchant Marine Council
        Members and Friends, From September 2007 we have discussed the Northwest Passage. and its ramifications for shipping to and from Europe and the Pacific Rim.
        Message 3 of 3 , Oct 20, 2009
          Members and Friends,
          From September 2007 we have discussed the "Northwest Passage." and its ramifications for shipping to and from Europe and the Pacific Rim.
          At our March 10, 2008 luncheon aboard the O'BRIEN Capt. Doug Finley, the O'BRIEN's First Mate, showed photographs and charts of his two sailboat adventures through the Northwest Passage.
          The recent article below brings us up to date on the situation.
          Would you like to revisit the subject at a luncheon in 2010?
          Heave Ho!


          Melting ice could transform Alaska economy

          Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times

          Sunday, October 18, 2009


          (10-18) 04:00 PDT Nome, --

          Alaska - Most days in Nome, you're not likely to run into anybody you didn't see at the Breakers Bar on Friday night. More than 500 roadless miles from Anchorage, rugged tundra and frigid Bering Sea waters have a way of discouraging visitors.

          So it was a big deal when the World - a 644-foot-long residential cruise ship with condos costing several million dollars apiece - dropped anchor during the summer for a two-day look-see.

          "We never had a ship anywhere near this size before," Chamber of Commerce director Mitch Erickson said. "My guess is they've probably been everywhere else in the world, and now they're going to the places most people haven't seen yet."

          That's about to change.

          The record shrinking of the polar ice cap is turning the forbidding waters at the top of the world into important new shipping routes.

          Four other cruise ships also docked in Nome recently. The U.S. Coast Guard deployed its first small Arctic patrol vessels last year. Fleets of scientific research vessels steamed north all summer, while ships surveying the vast oil and gas deposits under the Arctic seabed have talked of using Nome as a base.

          In fact, this town of 9,300 on the edge of the Bering Strait sees itself as the gateway to a newly accessible maritime frontier. Nome's ship traffic is eight times what it was in 1990, and the town recently spent close to $90 million renovating its port to accommodate bigger ships.

          To the north, Kotzebue would like to build its own deep-water port a few miles outside town. And Barrow, a remote Eskimo whaling village that sits at the very top of the continent, for the past few summers has had cruise ships full of German tourists and Coast Guard patrol boats docking near its rudimentary landing facility.

          "We can no longer assume," Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell said at a congressional hearing, "that the Arctic is an impenetrable barrier."

          The coming shipping boom has intensified concerns about how to regulate maritime operations and protect one of the most fragile and least-understood environments on Earth.

          Binding international rules on what kind of vessels can operate in the Arctic do not exist. Nor do uniform regulations for routine waste discharges from ships, or reliable protocols for cleaning up spills under extreme ice conditions.

          Detailed terrain maps that meet international standards exist for only about 9 percent of the Arctic floor, and there are no reliable high-frequency communications systems.

          The Coast Guard has just two operable ice breakers in its fleet, and its closest refueling station is 1,000 miles to the southeast in Kodiak, Alaska. That's eight hours away by rescue helicopter should a cruise ship founder on an iceberg.

          "There's water where there didn't used to be, and we're responsible for it," Adm. Thad Allen, commandant of the Coast Guard, said in Nome over the summer. "The real question is: What kind of presence and capability do we want to have up there?"

          More than 6,000 ships now ply the Arctic waters, according to one of the first comprehensive studies of shipping in the region, completed by the international Arctic Council in April.

          The fabled Northwest Passage - linking the Atlantic and Pacific across northern Canada - saw a period of ice-free navigation in 2007 and 2008. Climate forecasts predict there could be 120 or more largely ice-free transit days each year by the end of the century. And last year's record-breaking ice melt for the first time opened the Northwest Passage and the Northeast Passage, above Russia, for several weeks.

          Two German cargo ships completed a rare transit of the Northeast Passage on Sept. 7 when they sailed under escort by Russian icebreakers into the Siberian port of Yamburg. The journey, one of the first by a Western merchant vessel, began in South Korea in July and proceeded on to Europe.

          The shortcut across Russia allows ships to travel the 8,700 miles from the Korean Peninsula to Europe in 23 days, rather than the 11,000-mile, 32-day voyage through the Suez Canal. Beluga Shipping, which operated the German ships, estimated that it saved 200 tons of fuel per vessel.

          The Arctic Council found that growing worldwide demand for minerals hidden in the Arctic is playing an even bigger role than climate change in the opening of new shipping routes in the far north.

          Red Dog - the largest zinc mine in the world, located about 90 miles northwest of Kotzebue - operates the only major U.S. marine cargo port in the Arctic. Some of the largest ships in the world pull up off the mine's barren stretch of frigid coastline, bound for markets all over the world.

          Operators said they have no plans to expand operations or reroute their Europe-bound vessels through the Northwest Passage as part of their operations. (They travel south through the Panama Canal.)

          But a longer ice-free period, said John Egan, the mine's operating manager, means ore deposits in even more remote locations, including trillions of tons of coal that have lain untapped beneath northwest Alaska, might soon be made accessible.

          At Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic, development is under way to ship 18 million tons a year of high-grade iron ore through icy waters to steel mills in Europe.

          Norilsk Nickel, the biggest nickel and palladium producer in the world, operating high in the Russian Arctic, earlier this year completed delivery of its own ice-reinforced fleet.

          And the Obama administration will decide soon whether to open up large sections of the offshore Arctic in Alaska to access billions of barrels of oil and gas.

          "What's really driving marine activity in the Arctic is not climate change," said Lawson Brigham, a former Coast Guard ice breaker commander who chaired the marine shipping assessment for the Arctic Council. "It's global economics."

          Rumbling up from Kodiak, Coast Guard C-130s twice a month conduct patrols over the Arctic - surveying ice conditions, looking for potential security threats, monitoring the barges that in the summer deliver fuel and supplies to coastal villages and eyeing the busy oil and gas operations creeping steadily seaward from the North Slope.

          "There wasn't as much of a need to get up there before," Capt. William Deal, commanding officer of the Coast Guard base at Kodiak, said as the plane prepared to fly north to Kotzebue and - skimming 500 feet above the gray Arctic chop - west over the Chukchi Sea. "But now we're trying to make sure we're ready for anything."

          A study of Coast Guard resources now under way is expected to determine whether the agency needs a full forward operating base in the Arctic.

          If one is built, Nome wants it.

          "Our argument ... is that we're already established; our port is already here. We just need to go out a little deeper," Mayor Denise Michels said.

          But where will it lead, many here wonder, in a region whose villages have been among the most isolated on Earth?

          "There is increasing talk of Arctic shipping lanes, expanded fisheries, new tourism opportunities and other competing uses," Barrow's mayor, Edward Itta, told a panel of senior Obama administration officials who traveled to Anchorage in August to deliberate what approach the government should take to the northern seas.

          "In the midst of all these claims, we are trying to preserve our traditional use of our land," he said. "We are not afraid of change as Inupiat Eskimos. ... But all of us know that change involves risk, and the risk of some of these potential activities in the Arctic are substantial."

          Traditional whalers worry that increased shipping and offshore oil and gas operations could injure or scare away the whales that have supported residents of the Arctic slope for generations.

          "With the increased traffic - just like anywhere else - the more sound that is put out there, especially the high pitches, that's extremely harmful to (the whales). So they're naturally going to disappear or avoid you," said Roy Mendenhall, who has hunted belugas from Kotzebue for years.

          And conservationists fear that widespread shipping in the Arctic could triple the region's ozone pollution and accelerate the melting of the ice, which supports the walrus, seals and polar bears on which native Alaskans depend.

          "The trade between Asia and Europe, that's what's driving it," said Tom Okleasik, planning director for the Northern Arctic Borough in Kotzebue. "It's about cutting multiple days off the shipping time. It's about what cuts costs for multinational corporations. It's not about what's best for the Arctic communities."

          The warming seas, however, likely would result in one economic benefit of particular interest to communities across Alaska's Arctic coast: Fuel must be hauled in by barge, and the limited shipping window often locks towns into accepting deliveries when gas and heating oil are at cripplingly high prices. A longer ice-free season means more purchasing flexibility.

          The majority of shipping here involves regional traffic rather than vessels crossing the polar region. And analysts say that's not likely to change soon, because even with the increased ice melt, the Northwest Passage is notoriously unpredictable. Ten ships navigated the entire length last year, and nine ships made it through in 2007. But this year the passage remained clogged with ice for much of the summer.

          The problem, said Trudy Wohlleben, a forecaster with the Canadian Ice Service, is that heavy melting in the waterway allowed large chunks of ice from the Arctic Ocean to flow in from the north, making for treacherous waters.

          That's anathema to shipping, which depends on firm schedules and delivery dates planned months in advance.

          "If you've got a 40 percent savings in distance but you can't reliably capture that savings, then regular Arctic shipping isn't going to happen," said Mead Treadwell, chairman of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission.

          Whether the route through Russia or Canada opens up, Nome expects its port to be booming with oil and gas exploration vessels, delivery barges, tourist ships and, once the region is opened for fishing, fleets of trawlers bound for Arctic waters.

          "My wife and I keep pinching ourselves in amazement," David Clyde, an Australian tourist from Brisbane, said recently as he prepared to board a plane at Nome after an Arctic cruise. "We kept saying, 'Are we really here watching polar bears?' "

          Leo Rasmussen, Nome's former mayor, said, "I think we're going to see a far larger impact than we're even conceiving. People are going to be coming past Alaska. And if we are there to offer the services to those ships that want to go either way, if we're there to protect the ships while they're in our sphere of influence, if we offer better services than our neighbor next door in Russia, then we become the entrance and exit to the entire Arctic Ocean."

          This article appeared on page A - 2 of the San Francisco Chronicle

          Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/10/18/MNH31A487M.DTL#ixzz0UVOxOjFh
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