Recent information has told us that this year is the fourth lowest on record for Arctic ice coverage, but the news isn’t all bad. Scientists studying ice thickness in the Northwest Passage have reported similar findings, but are confident that the region won’t be suitable for year round travel for decades still, if then. That may sound odd, but what that means is that the ice is still too thick, and isn’t melting at a catastrophic rate.
The Northwest Passage is a series of gulfs, rivers, and canals that connect Beaufort Sea in the west and Baffin Bay in the east. During the summer, when those waters are navigable by ships, it is a much shorter route between the Pacific and Atlantic than going through either the Panama or Suez canals. It is named for the legendary passage sought by early explorers of North America, who both underestimated how wide the continent is, and persisted in believing a hypothesis with no proof whatsoever.
The Northwest Passage also allows us to study ice thickness, which is an important indicator of how much ice is melting in a given year, but is significantly harder to determine than ice coverage, which can be ascertained with satellite photographs.
In the first study of it’s kind, scientists measured the Northwest Passage ice thickness, and were surprised at what they found. The measurements were taken in the winter, but they were following several summers of greater than average open water for the region. Ice breaks up and is more easily navigable in the summer, hence the use of the passage then, but since there’s been more breaking and more open water of late, the assumption was that the ice wasn’t going to be as thick as it is.
The thickness of the ice will allow scientists to better predict how much ice will break up over the coming summer, allowing them to better predict how ships can travel through the region.