Several sailboats will try to go through the Northwest and Northeast Passage this Arctic summer. It is not a given that they succeed, says Arctic ice expert and adventurer Knut Espen Solberg.
Norwegian Knut Espen Solberg is one of the foremost experts on Arctic ice conditions, and through his work as a senior Polar researcher at DNV, he follows closely what is happening in the world's northernmost waters. He has over wintered two times in Greenland in an effort to sail the Northwest Passage, and spent several summers after that doing research in the area.
He is also running the company Fotspor.org who focuses on climate research and expeditions in the Arctic.
Explorersweb's Jon Amtrup talked to him before departure, and will also do a follow up article on the boats that are about to try to sail the Northwest and the Northeast Passage this summer.
Solberg is now on his way back to Greenland in their boat, Jotun Arctic, to survey ice conditions.
- The inland ice on Greenland appears to melt and run into the sea much faster than the increase in air temperature, a result of climate change, would suggest. We wish to find out is some of the warm water of the Gulf Stream has found its way in to the Greenland fjords, and whether this contributes to increased melting of the bottom of the glacier, he says, and continues;
- Predicting ice conditions that will meet the yachts in the Arctic this summer is very difficult. Ice conditions in the different areas are not only based on the meltdown. Current and wind can quickly blow polar ice into the open areas where you think you can get through, says Knut Espen Solberg.
There is however some trends that could indicate a certain development for the boats that is now on their way in to the Arctic:
• In May "Arctic Gyre" (see illustration) was situated far west (to Alaska) in the Polar basin. This causes the ice off Alaska and western Canadian Arctic to set itself in motion towards Russia.
• There is moderate ice transport south of the Arctic through the Fram Strait.
• Low ice thickness (on average about 20 inches less than normal in large parts of the Arctic) and higher than normal temperatures are expected across much of the Arctic during the summer. This will cause a relatively rapid melting of ice.
• Small several year ice located in the southern area around the North West Passage bottleneck. This would indicate a relatively early opening of the passage.
• There is a lot of multi-year ice northwest of the Northwest Passage bottleneck (Peel/Larsen Sound). If there are northern winds, when the passage opens, this ice can quickly drift into the passage and close it.
- This indicates little ice and early open waters in the western part of the Northwest Passage. The ice in the eastern part of the passage is likely to melt quickly, but old multi-year ice can drive down and fill the passage again. This depends on the wind direction in the period immediately after the melting has taken place.
When it comes to the Northeast Passage, where the Russian Peter 1 and Norwegian Børge Ousland are trying to get through, he says:
- At present there is little to suggest that there will be another record year for low ice concentration of ice in the Northeast Passage, and the sailors will probably be dependent on the southerly winds to achieve a clear passage.
- The very latest update show (see illustration in Link section): ) that the melting process has slowed down for the last weeks compared to the last couple of years. The ice extent is currently about 1 mill square km above the record low experienced in 2007, at about the same level as in 2008 and 2009. It is however important to note that clearing the passages is not only a question of how much ice is present in the Arctic, but it is as much a question of the location of the ice.
- The least ice extent is not achieved until mid-September, and a lot can still happen. Although in recent years there has been considerably less ice in the Arctic summer season. This does not mean that the development and sailing in the Arctic, however, is not easy because the polar ice is seldom at rest. Wind can quickly carry the ice southward into to open waterways and fill the bays and straits, says Knut Espen Solberg.