See an Open Northwest Passage From Space

This month, the Arctic will likely have some of the lowest levels of ice on record.
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An overhead view of the Northwest Passage, using VIIRS data from the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership. (Photo: Jesse Allen)

An overhead view of the Northwest Passage, using VIIRS data from the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership. (Photo: Jesse Allen)

It's been a long, hot summer. As a result, we've seen melting even in the most unlikely places. Last month, a NASA satellite captured the image above, showing the northerly route through the Northwest Passage nearly open and free of ice. (Note that much of the white stuff in the photo is clouds, not ice.) The route is still considered mostly un-navigable because of dense ice in the Parry Channel, but even that is broken up, as you can see in this close-up:

An overhead view of the Northwest Passage, using VIIRS data from the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership. (Photo: Jesse Allen)

An overhead view of the Northwest Passage, using VIIRS data from the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership. (Photo: Jesse Allen)

Of course, the more southerly of the two main routes through the fabled Northwest Passage, which allows ships to sail from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean over Canada, has been open for several weeks now. Over the past few decades, the passage overall has become much more navigable because global warming has reduced the extent of the area's ice in the summer. In the 1980s, four ships made trips through the Northwest Passage every year, according to data from the Canadian government. Nowadays, 20 to 30 ships sail through each year.

Arctic ice melted at a higher-than-average pace in August, according to the United States' National Snow and Ice Data Center, and will probably fall to the third- or fourth-lowest extent on record sometime this month. All of those low records have occurred since 2007.

What does this mean for shipping through the Arctic? Despite the dramatic changes the Arctic has seen—and will continue to see—because of climate change, several analyses have found that sailing the Northwest Passage will remain a commercially risky venture for some time. Even if there's less ice, there may still be enough to impede large, commercial ships. Yet smaller ships, including research vessels, tourist cruises, and tugboats serving Arctic oil drillers, have been making the journey for nearly a decade now, University of Washington researcher Harry Stern recently pointed out to the Washington Post. Perhaps the future of shipping through the Northwest Passage won't include so many tankers carrying toys and iPhones, as it will oil-exploring ships and adventurers—who have their own effects on the area's ecosystem.

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