Will ice melt open fabled Northwest Passage?
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 Horn.
A threat to environment?
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 entrapment.
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.
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