artic sunset
The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Amundsen met a plate of "new ice" on the Northwest Passage, but it was easily traversed.
Douglas Struck - The Washington Post
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Melting Arctic Makes Way for Man

Its nemesis is old ice. Leached of salt, multiyear ice is concrete-hard. Capped by deceptively fluffy coats of snow, its swollen blue belly under the surface can weigh as much as a building. Gariepy recalls with a shudder a Greek vessel limping into harbor with a 65-foot gash in its hull, torn by old ice.

A half-day east of Kugluktuk, once called Coppermine, the Amundsen meets a flat, gray plate on the water, new ice formed this year. The ship's hull slices cleanly through it. The thinnest ice breaks into a foam of small pieces that skitter on the frozen surface.

Seals poke their heads above water to watch this strange beast. A white Arctic fox, caught in the ship's spotlight at night on the ice, freezes and then flees. A young polar bear, apparently awakened as it slept on a floe, scampers from the path of the vessel, then ambles on the ice alongside for a while. It stretches its long neck to sniff the air, then turns its attention to holes in the ice in search of a tasty seal.

For one month in September, if the last winter's ice has finally melted and before the new ice forms, ships nose tentatively into parts of the Northwest Passage. Barges bring supplies to Inuit communities and mines. Last year, seven cruise ships poked around the eastern fiords. Icebreakers from Canada, the United States and Russia ply the waters. Only seven ships made it all the way through last year, two of them icebreakers. And none so late as this voyage by the Amundsen.

Abreast of the island where the frozen skeletons of Franklin's ice-stranded crew were found, the Amundsen enters Icebreaker Channel. This slim corridor past the southeastern tip of Victoria Island opens into the path of the vast ice pack flowing south from the Pole. The ice pack gripped the vessels of early venturers, holding fast for a year, and now offers the Amundsen its toughest challenge. The ship enters at night, picking carefully through a field of new and old ice.

The darkened bridge of the ship is hushed; orders lowly given by the captain are echoed quietly by the helmsman. The vessel avoids the largest floes and plows over others with a shudder and a bump.

"You can't just use brute force," Gariepy explains. "You have to respect the sea, go with it and not fight it. A seven-foot-thick ice chunk the size of the ship weighs 4,000 tons. You don't just slam into it; you need more finesse. Even in an icebreaker, if you can avoid the ice, you do."

The ship emerges to head for Bellot Strait, a narrow channel usually choked with ice. Gariepy spends the night before reading old accounts of navigating the risky strait, named for a young French officer swallowed by an ice crevice. Before edging in, he sends the little red Messerschmitt helicopter from his stern deck to scout.

"This is always the worst place for the ice," says pilot Michel Fiset, 57, as he lifts his aircraft off the ship. He buzzes through the strait, then climbs to view the expanse of gray water beyond. "This is very unusual. We can see 10 to 15 miles and we don't see even an ice cube. It's open."

'Less and Less Ice'

Satellite imagery has shown that the Arctic ice cap is thinning and already is nearly 30 percent smaller than it was 25 years ago. In the winter of 2004-05, the Arctic's perennial ice, which usually survives the summer, shrank by 280,000 square miles, the size of Turkey. This past August, a crack opened in the ice pack from the Russian Arctic to the North Pole, an event never seen before.

Arctic ice reflects sunlight; its absence may accelerate global warming. The intricate chemistry that occurs in the rich Arctic waters could go haywire with unaccustomed heat and sunlight. Whole species seem destined to disappear while others move northward in their place. Inuit who thrived here for millennia are finding the thin ice and changed wildlife inhospitable.

"People tend to think there's not much life in the Arctic. But it's an incredibly diverse ecosystem," says Gary Stern, the chief scientist on the Amundsen. He was aboard when the ship was deliberately frozen in Franklin Bay in 2003. They spent the long winter doing experiments on the ice. The Amundsen has a pool to access the water through the hull; it became a favorite hangout for ringed seals.

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