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Melting Arctic Makes Way for Man

by: Doug Struck    5 November 2006

ICEBREAKER CHANNEL, Northwest Passage -- The Amundsen's engines growl low, as if in warning. The ship steals ahead; its powerful spotlights stab at fog thick with the lore of crushed ships and frozen voyagers. Ice floes gleam from the void like the eyes of animals in the night.

The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Amundsen weaves in graceful slow motion through the ice pack, advancing through the legendary Northwest Passage well after the Arctic should be iced over and shuttered to ships for the winter.

The fearsome ice is weakened and failing, sapped by climate change. Ultimately, this night's ghostly procession through Icebreaker Channel will be the worst the ship faces on its late-season voyage. Much of the trip, crossing North America from west to east through the Northwest Passage, will be in open water, with no ice in sight.

The Amundsen is here to challenge the ice that has long guarded the legendary Northwest Passage across the roof of the Earth, and to plumb the scientific mysteries of an Arctic thawing from global warming.

A relentless climb of temperature -- 5 degrees in 30 years -- is shrinking the Arctic ice and reawakening dreams of a 4,000-mile shortcut just shy of the North Pole, passing beside the Arctic's beckoning oil and mineral riches.

"Shipping companies are going to think about this, and if they think it's worth it, they are going to try it," says the captain of the Amundsen, Cmdr. Alain Gariepy, 43. "The question is not if, but when."

More ships will bring the risk -- the certainty, some say -- of accidents and black oil spills smeared on the white Arctic.

"This water is our hunting ground," Maria Kripanik, an Inuit born 52 years ago in a tent on the beach of Igloolik, told researchers who visited from the ship as it passed her village. There, hunters still use harpoons to snag beluga whales. "I don't know if the people here will like the idea of seeing ships all the time in our hunting ground," she said.

Equally wary are the scientists packed aboard the Amundsen. They occupy the Coast Guard ship for three months each year to study climate change in the fragile North, where the effects of a warmer globe are being felt first. They began this summer in Quebec City and churned west to the Beaufort Sea. As fall came on frigid gusts, the ship turned east again toward the Northwest Passage.

The Arctic ice pack rarely tolerates intruders in late October. It splintered the wooden ships of early explorers who stayed, seized fast the steel vessels that followed, and mocked dreams of regular transit through any of the routes in the maze of straits and channels of the passage.

British explorer John Franklin, whose search for the Northwest Passage transfixed the Western world, perished on a frigid island near here in 1847. Searching for him, many others fell. Their diaries, sometimes found by their frozen bodies, are grim accounts of waiting for a brief break in the ice, as starvation, scurvy and madness claimed them one by one. The map of the Arctic is littered with their names.

Finessing the Frozen Sea

A cool and careful Norwegian, Roald Amundsen took three years to thread these snowy islands a century ago. The Amundsen was built to follow its namesake. It is 323 feet long, with engines nearly three times more powerful than normal. The propellers, rudder and hull are hardened. The S-shaped bow rides up on the ice, using the ship's 8,500 tons to crush down through the pack. The Amundsen can maintain a steady march through ice four feet thick and can go through scattered 10-foot floes.

Its nemesis is old ice. Leached of salt, multiyear ice is concrete-hard. Capped by deceptively fluffy coats of snow, its swollen blue belly under the surface can weigh as much as a building. Gariepy recalls with a shudder a Greek vessel limping into harbor with a 65-foot gash in its hull, torn by old ice.

A half-day east of Kugluktuk, once called Coppermine, the Amundsen meets a flat, gray plate on the water, new ice formed this year. The ship's hull slices cleanly through it. The thinnest ice breaks into a foam of small pieces that skitter on the frozen surface.

Seals poke their heads above water to watch this strange beast. A white Arctic fox, caught in the ship's spotlight at night on the ice, freezes and then flees. A young polar bear, apparently awakened as it slept on a floe, scampers from the path of the vessel, then ambles on the ice alongside for a while. It stretches its long neck to sniff the air, then turns its attention to holes in the ice in search of a tasty seal.

For one month in September, if the last winter's ice has finally melted and before the new ice forms, ships nose tentatively into parts of the Northwest Passage. Barges bring supplies to Inuit communities and mines. Last year, seven cruise ships poked around the eastern fiords. Icebreakers from Canada, the United States and Russia ply the waters. Only seven ships made it all the way through last year, two of them icebreakers. And none so late as this voyage by the Amundsen.

Abreast of the island where the frozen skeletons of Franklin's ice-stranded crew were found, the Amundsen enters Icebreaker Channel. This slim corridor past the southeastern tip of Victoria Island opens into the path of the vast ice pack flowing south from the Pole. The ice pack gripped the vessels of early venturers, holding fast for a year, and now offers the Amundsen its toughest challenge. The ship enters at night, picking carefully through a field of new and old ice.

The darkened bridge of the ship is hushed; orders lowly given by the captain are echoed quietly by the helmsman. The vessel avoids the largest floes and plows over others with a shudder and a bump.

"You can't just use brute force," Gariepy explains. "You have to respect the sea, go with it and not fight it. A seven-foot-thick ice chunk the size of the ship weighs 4,000 tons. You don't just slam into it; you need more finesse. Even in an icebreaker, if you can avoid the ice, you do."

The ship emerges to head for Bellot Strait, a narrow channel usually choked with ice. Gariepy spends the night before reading old accounts of navigating the risky strait, named for a young French officer swallowed by an ice crevice. Before edging in, he sends the little red Messerschmitt helicopter from his stern deck to scout.

"This is always the worst place for the ice," says pilot Michel Fiset, 57, as he lifts his aircraft off the ship. He buzzes through the strait, then climbs to view the expanse of gray water beyond. "This is very unusual. We can see 10 to 15 miles and we don't see even an ice cube. It's open."

'Less and Less Ice'

Satellite imagery has shown that the Arctic ice cap is thinning and already is nearly 30 percent smaller than it was 25 years ago. In the winter of 2004-05, the Arctic's perennial ice, which usually survives the summer, shrank by 280,000 square miles, the size of Turkey. This past August, a crack opened in the ice pack from the Russian Arctic to the North Pole, an event never seen before.

Arctic ice reflects sunlight; its absence may accelerate global warming. The intricate chemistry that occurs in the rich Arctic waters could go haywire with unaccustomed heat and sunlight. Whole species seem destined to disappear while others move northward in their place. Inuit who thrived here for millennia are finding the thin ice and changed wildlife inhospitable.

"People tend to think there's not much life in the Arctic. But it's an incredibly diverse ecosystem," says Gary Stern, the chief scientist on the Amundsen. He was aboard when the ship was deliberately frozen in Franklin Bay in 2003. They spent the long winter doing experiments on the ice. The Amundsen has a pool to access the water through the hull; it became a favorite hangout for ringed seals.

This year is "amazing. No ice," Stern says.

Estimates vary widely on when the passage will be open to shipping all summer because of the ceaseless warming. The Canadian Ice Service conservatively predicts the southerly drift of even a shrunken ice pack will keep the passage clogged for most of this century. Other experts predict it will be open as soon as 2020; Canada's defense agency says 2015. Those who visit regularly say the evidence is before their eyes.

"You can see it. You come every year and you see less and less ice," says Marie Emmanuelle Rail, 30, a researcher who has been working in the Arctic for five years.

ArcticNet, the Canadian university consortium organizing the voyage, believes the interwoven effects of global warming may be revealed as shipmates, from students to noted scientists, discuss their work over galley tables. The vast Arctic out the portholes is a constant reminder of the stakes.

"It's huge. It's all about saving the world," says Stephane Thanassekos, 26, a French researcher pursuing his doctoral degree at Laval University in Quebec City.

A scientist with infectious enthusiasm, Thanassekos operates a contraption that looks like an automatic milker from a dairy barn. It has 24 cylinders that can each be controlled to collect water at a different depth, up to 3,000 feet, and a bevy of sophisticated probes.

"These measurements are used to calibrate the models that tell us, for example, when we won't have ice in the Arctic," he says. His own work calculates the survival prospects of Arctic cod, "which are right in the middle of the food chain" of the Arctic.

Jody Deming, 54, a professor at the University of Washington, studies "hot spots" in the ocean that are now being overtaken by a gradual warming, and microbes in super-cold ice that may help reveal life in space.

Stern, 47, is trying to figure out how mercury and other chemicals are making their way into animals of the Arctic. Julie Viellette, 27, a graduate student at Laval University, is studying viruses and bacteria. Even in the harsh Arctic environment, a thimbleful of water contains 100,000 bacteria. Robbie Bennett, 29, a geologist, pokes through muck hauled from the seabed 300 feet down, alive with tiny, pale creatures.

A Still-Treacherous Shortcut

The Amundsen cautiously approaches Baffin Island at Fury and Hecla Strait, a dangerously narrow half-mile-wide passage. No ship has gone through this late, the captain says. But the Amundsen sails through in clear water. "This was easier than expected," Gariepy acknowledges. At the eastern mouth of the strait, the residents of Igloolik are surprised the ship is coming through the Northwest Passage in late October. They are not pleased at the weather. They count on a frozen strait to travel to Baffin Island to hunt caribou.

"We get tired of eating seal meat and walrus by this time," Michael Immaroitok, 38, tells visitors from the ship who helicoptered over to Igloolik, a village of about 1,600. Fishing boats are pulled onto the shore; dogs are gnawing on the carcass of a whale.

When hunters bring in whale or narwhal, villagers share, and the animal ends up boiled, pickled, chopped like salad and served raw -- muktuk. But the hunting has been disrupted by "weird, crazy weather in the last five years," Immaroitok complains.

Some believe the worries are overblown. "I think the passage is going to be used, but I don't think it's going to be a navigation highway," says Frederick Lasserre, a professor of geography at Laval University, onboard the ship. Costs of operating in the North are high, the ice cover is never certain and shipping companies do not want to risk delays, he says. "In 20 years, there might be less first-year ice. But there might also be more icebergs breaking off the ice cap that would be navigational hazards."

Michael Byers, an international law expert at the University of British Columbia who is also on board, sees the open water passing under the bow in more ominous terms.

"The reputable shipping companies would not come here" until the risks of icebergs are low, he acknowledges. "But my worry is the tramp steamer with a single hull under a Liberian flag and Philippine crew. You dangle a 4,000-mile shortcut in front of them -- that means time and money. There will always be someone who rolls the dice.

"They run into an uncharted rock, and all of a sudden it's Exxon Valdez times ten," he says.

"We can't afford to wait until disaster hits," says Stern, as the Amundsen pitches in the open Hudson Strait near Iqaluit, the eastern destination of its voyage through the passage. "Before, you were wondering if anyone was listening. Now, they can't ignore it. Global warming is here."