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

This year is "amazing. No ice," Stern says.

Estimates vary widely on when the passage will be open to shipping all summer because of the ceaseless warming. The Canadian Ice Service conservatively predicts the southerly drift of even a shrunken ice pack will keep the passage clogged for most of this century. Other experts predict it will be open as soon as 2020; Canada's defense agency says 2015. Those who visit regularly say the evidence is before their eyes.

"You can see it. You come every year and you see less and less ice," says Marie Emmanuelle Rail, 30, a researcher who has been working in the Arctic for five years.

ArcticNet, the Canadian university consortium organizing the voyage, believes the interwoven effects of global warming may be revealed as shipmates, from students to noted scientists, discuss their work over galley tables. The vast Arctic out the portholes is a constant reminder of the stakes.

"It's huge. It's all about saving the world," says Stephane Thanassekos, 26, a French researcher pursuing his doctoral degree at Laval University in Quebec City.

A scientist with infectious enthusiasm, Thanassekos operates a contraption that looks like an automatic milker from a dairy barn. It has 24 cylinders that can each be controlled to collect water at a different depth, up to 3,000 feet, and a bevy of sophisticated probes.

"These measurements are used to calibrate the models that tell us, for example, when we won't have ice in the Arctic," he says. His own work calculates the survival prospects of Arctic cod, "which are right in the middle of the food chain" of the Arctic.

Jody Deming, 54, a professor at the University of Washington, studies "hot spots" in the ocean that are now being overtaken by a gradual warming, and microbes in super-cold ice that may help reveal life in space.

Stern, 47, is trying to figure out how mercury and other chemicals are making their way into animals of the Arctic. Julie Viellette, 27, a graduate student at Laval University, is studying viruses and bacteria. Even in the harsh Arctic environment, a thimbleful of water contains 100,000 bacteria. Robbie Bennett, 29, a geologist, pokes through muck hauled from the seabed 300 feet down, alive with tiny, pale creatures.

A Still-Treacherous Shortcut

The Amundsen cautiously approaches Baffin Island at Fury and Hecla Strait, a dangerously narrow half-mile-wide passage. No ship has gone through this late, the captain says. But the Amundsen sails through in clear water. "This was easier than expected," Gariepy acknowledges. At the eastern mouth of the strait, the residents of Igloolik are surprised the ship is coming through the Northwest Passage in late October. They are not pleased at the weather. They count on a frozen strait to travel to Baffin Island to hunt caribou.

"We get tired of eating seal meat and walrus by this time," Michael Immaroitok, 38, tells visitors from the ship who helicoptered over to Igloolik, a village of about 1,600. Fishing boats are pulled onto the shore; dogs are gnawing on the carcass of a whale.

When hunters bring in whale or narwhal, villagers share, and the animal ends up boiled, pickled, chopped like salad and served raw -- muktuk. But the hunting has been disrupted by "weird, crazy weather in the last five years," Immaroitok complains.

Some believe the worries are overblown. "I think the passage is going to be used, but I don't think it's going to be a navigation highway," says Frederick Lasserre, a professor of geography at Laval University, onboard the ship. Costs of operating in the North are high, the ice cover is never certain and shipping companies do not want to risk delays, he says. "In 20 years, there might be less first-year ice. But there might also be more icebergs breaking off the ice cap that would be navigational hazards."

Michael Byers, an international law expert at the University of British Columbia who is also on board, sees the open water passing under the bow in more ominous terms.

"The reputable shipping companies would not come here" until the risks of icebergs are low, he acknowledges. "But my worry is the tramp steamer with a single hull under a Liberian flag and Philippine crew. You dangle a 4,000-mile shortcut in front of them -- that means time and money. There will always be someone who rolls the dice.

"They run into an uncharted rock, and all of a sudden it's Exxon Valdez times ten," he says.

"We can't afford to wait until disaster hits," says Stern, as the Amundsen pitches in the open Hudson Strait near Iqaluit, the eastern destination of its voyage through the passage. "Before, you were wondering if anyone was listening. Now, they can't ignore it. Global warming is here."

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