Images Show Arctic Ice Shrinking to Record Low

By Jamey Keaten
Associated Press
Sunday, September 16, 2007

PARIS, Sept. 15 -- Arctic ice has shrunk to the lowest level on record, new satellite images show, raising the possibility that the Northwest Passage that eluded famous explorers will become an open shipping lane.

The European Space Agency said nearly 200 satellite photos this month showed an ice-free passage along northern Canada, Alaska and Greenland, and ice retreating to its lowest level since such images were first taken in 1978.

The waters are exposing unexplored resources, and vessels could trim thousands of miles from Europe to Asia by bypassing the Panama Canal. The seasonal ebb and flow of ice levels has already opened up a slim summer window for ships.

Leif Toudal Pedersen of the Danish National Space Center said Arctic ice has shrunk to about 1 million square miles. The previous low was 1.5 million square miles, in 2005.

"The strong reduction in just one year certainly raises flags that the ice may disappear much sooner than expected," Pedersen said in a statement posted Friday on the European Space Agency's Web site.

Pedersen said the extreme retreat this year suggested the passage could fully open sooner than expected, but the space agency did not say when that might be. Efforts to contact space agency officials in Paris and Noordwik, the Netherlands, were unsuccessful Saturday.

A U.N. panel on climate change has predicted that polar regions could be virtually free of ice by the summer of 2070 because of rising temperatures and sea ice decline, the space agency noted.

Russia, Norway, Denmark, Canada and the United States are among countries in a race to secure rights to the Arctic that escalated last month when Russia sent two small submarines to plant its national flag under the North Pole. A U.S. study has suggested that as much as 25 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas reserves could be in the area.

Environmentalists fear that increased maritime traffic and efforts to tap natural resources in the area could lead to oil spills and harm regional wildlife.

Until now, the passage has been expected to remain closed even during reduced ice cover by multiyear ice pack -- sea ice that remains through one or more summers, the space agency said.

Researcher Claes Ragner of Norway's Fridtjof Nansen Institute, which works on Arctic environmental and political issues, said that for now, the new opening has only symbolic meaning for the future of sea transport.

"Routes between Scandinavia and Japan could be almost halved, and a stable and reliable route would mean a lot to certain regions," he said by phone. But even if the passage is opening up and polar ice continues to melt, it will take years for such routes to become regular, he said.

"It won't be ice-free all year around and it won't be a stable route all year," Ragner said. "The greatest wish for sea transportation is streamlined and stable routes."

"Shorter transport routes mean less pollution if you can ship products from A to B on the shortest route," he said, "but the fact that the polar ice is melting away is not good for the world in that we're losing the Arctic and the animal life there."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company