[Surfside] On the bright side of polar ice cap melting

Roman Zimmermann roman@waldenweb.com
Fri, 30 Aug 2002 21:30:08 -0500


Researchers say Arctic route could thaw in next decade

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Rapid melting of the Arctic ice pack may turn a 
cherished sailor's myth into reality. The Northwest Passage, the 
legendary shipping shortcut from the Atlantic to the Pacific, could be 
ice-free in as few as 10 years, many predict.

A well-documented continuing Arctic thaw is reducing polar ice, a change 
that is likely to have profound effects on commerce, ecology and native 
cultures, according to author Richard Kerr, writing in the journal Science.

The fabled route runs below Iceland and Greenland, through the Arctic 
archipelago in northern Canada, and along the northern coast of Alaska 
between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

An ice-free Northwest Passage would let ships traveling between Europe 
and Asia shave more than 4,000 miles off the route through the Panama 
Canal and would allow ships to avoid the occasional delays and the 
passage fees of the canal.

In addition, many of the largest container and tanker ships cannot fit 
in the 88-year-old canal, forcing shippers to use smaller vessels or to 
take the even longer, more treacherous route around South America's Cape 


But the potential windfall for shippers could threaten native cultures 
and Arctic wildlife.

The combination of declining ice and dramatically increased ship traffic 
could alter the feeding habits of fish, seals and polar bears, further 
threatening the traditional way of life of the Inuit communities that 
depend on ice-bound Arctic creatures for their survival.

The specter of an Exxon Valdez-like oil spill also raises concern 
throughout the region, Kerr wrote.

Shipping experts caution the passage probably would be safe for shipping 
traffic only in the summer, and ships using the Arctic route would need 
substantial investment in reinforced hulls to survive ice collisions or 

Kerr cited the work of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, which 
predicts that in as little as a decade ships would find ice-free passage 
in the summer months.

More conservative climate models show the Northwest Passage opening 
before the year 2080 at the latest.

Kerr's article appeared in the August 30 edition of Science. His work is 
a news report, not a peer-reviewed study.