Rapid ice melt opens Arctic's Northwest Passage

Rapid ice melt opens Arctic's Northwest Passage

Ice retreated rapidly in the Parry Channel between mid-July and early August 2012. Parry Channel is a part of elusive Northwest Passage. The loss of Arctic sea ice is predicted to open up the Northwest Passage, shortening shipping routes and facilitating the exchange of marine organisms between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans.

The passage is a shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Canadian Arctic. It would save valuable time and fuel for ships that now travel through the Suez Canal in Egypt or the Panama Canal in Central America.

Recent images, acquired by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite, show significant changes over two weeks.



The Canadian Ice Service reported that ice cover in Parry Channel began to fall below the 1981–2010 median after July 16, 2012, and the loss accelerated over the following two weeks. On July 23, the percentage of ice cover in the channel was roughly 67 percent, compared to the median of 80 percent. On July 30, ice cover was roughly 33 percent, compared a median of 79 percent.



While the Parry Channel appeared almost entirely free of ice, it was not necessarily open for navigational purposes. Sea ice can be thin enough to avoid detection by satellite sensors such as MODIS yet still thick enough to impede ships.

Attempts to identify a shortcut between Europe and Asia across the Arctic date back to the late fifteenth century, just several years after Columbus journeyed to the Americas. The Northwest Passage was first successfully navigated by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen between 1903 and 1906. He used the southern route through the Northwest Passage.

Of Maps and Men: In Pursuit of a Northwest Passage



Animated map of the last 10 days


The loss of Arctic sea ice is predicted to open up the Northwest Passage, shortening shipping routes and facilitating the exchange of marine organisms between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans.



Sources: NSDICNASA Ocean Color Web, Earth Observatory

NASA Earth Observatory images by Jesse Allen, using data from the Land Atmosphere Near real-time Capability for EOS (LANCE). Caption by Michon Scott, with information from Walt Meier, National Snow and Ice Data Center.