A couple of days ago I noticed on the LANCE-MODIS satellite image that Vilkitsky Strait was already devoid of fast ice. This strait between the Siberian coast and the islands of Severnaya Zemlya is one of the key areas for navigating the Northern Sea Route, also known as the Northeast Passage. In this animation I made in 2010 the ice cleared around day 192 (July 11th), over a month later than this year.
But how about the rest of the Northern Sea Route? Well, we know that westwards from Vilkitsky Strait a lot of the ice has disappeared already, because the ice never really properly thickened there this winter. As to the regions eastwards of Vilkitsky Strait it so happens to be that the Alfred Wegener Institute issued a press release yesterday that tells us just that. I've translated some of it:
Bremerhaven, June 8th 2012, The Northeast Passage, the sea route along the Russian coast, will probably be ice-free at an early stage again this year. This is what is predicted by sea ice physicists from the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research after measurement flights over the Laptev Sea, known among experts as the 'ice engine of the Arctic'. At the end of last winter the researchers encountered vast expanses of ice that had a maximum thickness of 50 cm, which will hardly be enough to resist the summer sun for a long time.
"These results have really surprised us," says expedition member Dr. Thomas Krumpen. According to measurements in the same area in the winter of 2007/2008 the ice was up to 1 meter thicker. The main cause of these obvious discrepancies is wind, says Krumpen. "It can be different from one year to the next. If the wind blows from the main land over the sea, like happened this past winter, the pack ice is blown northwards out of the Laptev Sea. This causes open expanses of water, so-called polynyas, to appear before the coast. Of course, these surface waters cool off very quickly when the air temperature is minus 40 degrees Celsius. New, thin ice forms and is blown away again by the wind. Because of this cycle large parts of the Laptev Sea can be covered with expanses of thin ice, depending on the wind-force and continuity," Thomas Krumpen explains.
Ice thickness in the Laptev Sea at the end of last winter (April 20th 2012). Sea ice thickness was measured by the SMOS (Soil Moisture Ocean Saliniy) satellite, that can measure ice thickness up to 50 cm [see this blog post for more info, N.]. The black line shows the flight trajectory of the AWI scientists. SMOS data: Lars Kaleschke, KlimaCampus, Universität Hamburg
Read the rest of the press release (in German) here.
So the Kara Sea is melting out fast, the fast ice has broken up in Vilkitsky Strait, there's a large polynya in the Laptev Sea and the East Siberian Sea isn't looking particularly great either. Last year the Northern Sea Route was opening up around July 21st (see last year's blog post), four weeks later than in 2010 (see blog post).
I think we're going to see more cargo ships this year taking the shorter route from Asia to Europe. More on that later this melting season.