Unfrozen Sea

Michael Byers sails the Northwest Passage

‘Where has all the ice gone?’ Joe Immaroitok asked. It was 24 October last year, and he was staring at Foxe Basin. A shallow expanse of ocean the size of England, the basin usually freezes over by early October, enabling the Inuit to travel across to Baffin Island to hunt caribou. This winter, the local council in Igloolik was considering chartering a plane to take the hunters across the unfrozen sea.

A few hours before I spoke with Immaroitok, I’d sailed through Fury and Hecla Strait on board the Amundsen, Canada’s research icebreaker. All we saw were a few chunks of thick, aquamarine ‘multiyear’ ice – formed when ice survives one summer or more, and new ice accretes to it – which had floated down from higher latitudes and were easily avoided. The previous day, we’d passed through Bellot Strait – the first ship ever to do so in October. We were 350 miles north of the Arctic Circle, but there was no ice.

The two straits are part of the Northwest Passage, the so-called ‘Arctic Grail’. From Martin Frobisher in 1576 to John Franklin in 1845, generations of European explorers searched for a navigable route through the Arctic islands to Asia. Many of them – including Franklin and his men – died in the attempt. Their greatest challenge was sea-ice, which has almost always filled the straits, even in summer. William Parry spent the summers of 1821 and 1822 waiting for the ice to clear from Fury and Hecla Strait. But though the strait is named after his ships, he never made it through. Leopold McClintock, despatched by Lady Franklin to search for her husband on King William Island, tried six times to penetrate Bellot Strait during the summer of 1858 before continuing his journey by dog-sled. It took Roald Amundsen three years – including two winters lodged in the ice – to complete the first full transit of the Northwest Passage in 1906.

In 2004, the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment reported that the average extent of sea-ice cover in summer had declined by 15-20 per cent over the previous 30 years. The remaining ice was 10-15 per cent thinner overall and 40 per cent thinner in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. These trends were expected to accelerate, so that by the end of the 21st century, there might be no sea-ice at all in the summer. Recent satellite measurements analysed by the US National Snow and Ice Data Center are even more alarming. In March 2006 the area covered during the winter by sea-ice was at an all-time low: 120,000 square miles less than the previous year. At this rate, the Arctic could lose all of its sea-ice by 2030.

Phytoplankton in the Arctic, like all plants, remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by photosynthesising. Because the waters they live in are so cold, when the phytoplankton die they sink into the ocean depths without decomposing: the carbon they have removed from the atmosphere remains at the bottom of the sea for hundreds of years. Jody Deming from the University of Washington, who was on board the Amundsen with me, is worried that as the water warms up, the activity of marine bacteria that feed on the dead plankton will increase, releasing carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere.

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