During the last four years scientists have seen new lows for Arctic sea ice, both for its seasonal winter peak in 2015 and its summer minimum in 2012.
Despite the damage this climate change phenomenon will have on Arctic ecosystems and indigenous cultures, some people are seeing it as an opportunity. The shipping industry is already planning new routes and the oil industry views these changes as a chance to exploit a treasure trove of oil mineral deposits.
These dramatic changes may also offer a challenging opportunity for adventurous racing sailors. The Sailing the Arctic Race (STAR) is being proposed for the summer/fall of 2017. The 7,700-mile race from New York City to Victoria, British Columbia, will route sailors through the Northwest Passage if conditions permit.
“The more ice that’s being melted, the more free water is there for us to be sailing,” said Robert Molnar, the founder and CEO of the race. “Normally we should not be able to do that, but we can.” Sailing gear manufacturer Harken has already weighed in as a sponsor of the race with other prominent gear manufacturers reportedly to follow.
“Although end-of-summer ice conditions in the Amundsen route of the Northwest Passage have become milder over the past decade, ice conditions have been, and will remain, highly variable,” said Mark Serreze, head of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo. “At the end of summer 2017, the route might be more-or-less completely ice-free. It may be choked with ice. A great deal will depend on the summer weather patterns,” Serreze said.
Data from Environment Canada suggests that since 2000, the minimum level of ice cover in the passage (usually seen in August, September, or October) has been below 5 percent most years.
Since the 1980s on, voyages through the Passage have become an annual event. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources of Canada’s Northwest Territories says that the number of transits increased from four per year in the 1980s to 20 to 30 per year in 2009-2013.
Katy Campbell, a spokesman for STAR, said that if conditions aren’t favorable, the race can shift its schedule — or the course of the race — for safety reasons.
Visit www.sailingthearctic.org for more information.