Though RV Mirai is presently working an ice-free area of the Chukchi Sea, an area selected for just that reason, it is readily apparent that all around us ice continues to be a challenge to Arctic shipping. 

In the central Canadian Arctic the Northwest Passage has been blocked with heavy multi-year ice, experiencing yet another “bad ice year”.  The heavy multi-year ice that has clogged McClintock Channel and surrounding waters has even affected the highly publicized search for remains of Sir John Franklin’s ships lost in the 1850s.  The Canadian research flotilla led by CCGS Sir Wilfred Laurier was forced by the heavy ice to concentrate their efforts well outside their intended search area.  In this case, the refocus of search forced by the ice ultimately resulted in leading to the discovery of what is now believed to be the remains of either HMS Terror or Erebus.

Other news reports over the last weeks have indicated commercial shipping is re-examining the potential of routing regularly through the Northern Sea Route.  After highly publicized expeditionary voyages by a number of vessels over the last few years and the real numbers are being tallied up, the mileage savings in routing through potentially ice infested waters has not been as profitable as initial calculations suggested.  The variability of ice conditions still affect voyage plans as would unexpected motorway closures to scheduled bus routes.  The operators simply cannot guarantee on time delivery when the exact route and speeds cannot be assured.  In addition, major marine insurers have recently advised that they remain extremely cautious with respect to underwriting polar voyages.

As I carefully review ice charts and imagery, I have noticed that it appears the polar pack has already ended its annual degradation and melt.  Mid-week TOPAZ charts clearly indicated the beginning consolidation of the pack ice and virtually a cessation of the retreat northward of the primary ice edge, both signs of the turn.  The IARC Arctic Sea Extent ice graph just issued 07 September indicates, if not a cessation of reduction in overall Arctic ice cover, at least the near bottoming out at minimum.  My bet is the “minimum” point will be declared by the middle of next week and it will have been earlier this year than 2103 by perhaps a week.  This places both 2013 and 2104 within the averages of the first decade of the millennium and with greater ice extent than the minimums around 2010. 

In no way do I suggest that this is an attempt to debunk climate change.  I merely point out (as I must with clients very often), that yet again ice conditions are variable and in many ways remain cyclical from good to bad ice years.  One good ice year, not even several good ice years, does not foretell an end to ice as we know it, and that even in the proven incremental downward trend in Arctic ice cover, the cycles remain.  Easy ice-free sailing is not immediately upon us. Mariners must still be cognizant of the variability and be prepared to be stopped dead in their tracks by ice where last year there was none.

The remains of one of Franklin’s ships discovered in the past days is testament to the ongoing cyclical nature of sea ice.  Contrary to Sir John Parry’s furthest west voyage into the western reaches of McClure Strait in the early 1800’s, Sir John Franklin’s two ships were helplessly trapped in heavy ice well short of the same region just a few decades later. 

Franklin and his men paid the ultimate price for underestimating the ice.  Modern mariners should not make the same error in underestimating polar ice.