Arctic Explorers Bring Bad News After Sailing Northwest and Northeast Passages

Amended Route Map High Res

One of the most ambitious and interesting adventures of the summer has been the Polar Ocean Challenge. Led by famed explorer David Hempleman-Adams, the objective of the expedition was to sail both the Northeast and Northwest passages in a single year, circumnavigating the North Pole and taking stock of the arctic sea ice along the way. A few days back the crew of adventurers, sailors, and researchers completed a major milestone of their journey, and they brought back some sobering news about the state of ice in the Arctic Ocean.

The sailing ship Northabout set sail from Bristol, in the U.K. back June, making way for Norway before proceeding on to Russia to the start of the Northeast Passage. The ship ran into a delay at that point due to pack ice still blocking the route. That isn’t too uncommon in the early part of summer, as it generally takes a few weeks before the passage clears. From there, they navigated on through the icy waters of the Arctic before exiting into the Northern Pacific and crossing over to Alaska. The next stage of the journey was through the Northwest Passage above Canada, which is the section that was just completed. Now, the plan is to sail on to Greenland, and then back home to Bristol.

By successfully navigating through the both the Northwest and Northeast passages, the crew proved that those once mythical routes are now fully open, and accessible. They also became the first ship to make such a journey in a single season, although they certainly won’t be the last. Climatologists now predict that both passages will see increasing numbers of commercial traffic before the middle of the century, even by ships that are not hardened against ice.

On the Polar Ocean Challenge website the team posted a press release a few days back sharing the news of their successful completion of the Northwest Passage, which took just 14 days to finish. That’s an incredibly fast time through that part of the world, but the team revealed that they had encountered almost no ice along the entire route. In fact, in the two weeks that they spent there, they came across ice only twice in 1800 nautical miles (3333 km/2071 miles).

This news is both astonishing and troubling at the same time. It now seems pretty clear that both the Northwest and Northeast Passages will soon be open for longer periods of time each year, and that they will be safer than ever to pass through. The Arctic sea ice is a bit like the canary in the coal mine, giving us an indicator of just how much impact climate change is having on our planet.

The crew of the Northabout is on the home stretch now, having completed the most difficult sections of their voyage. The team’s website shares some important information about their expedition, which has now been at sea for more than 20 weeks and covered over 13,500 nautical miles (24,076 km /14,960 miles). Perhaps the most startling statistic of all however, is that researchers about the ship have recorded a 13.4% drop in the sea ice levels, which is a faster and higher rate than was expected.

I suspect these kinds of reports will become the norm moving forward. It is still troubling to read however.