A transforming Arctic

Arctic sea ice, Sept 8, 2008 (From NASA EO).

From EO Newsroom

This image shows Arctic sea ice concentration on September 8, 2008, as observed by the Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer–Earth Observing System (AMSR-E) sensor on NASA’s Aqua satellite. The observations are collected on a pixel by pixel basis over the Arctic. The percentage of a 12.5-square-kilometer pixel covered by ice is shown in shades of dark blue (no ice) to white (100 percent ice). The gray line around the Arctic basin shows the median minimum extent of sea ice from 1979-2000. (The median of a data set is the middle value if you arrange the numbers in order from smallest to largest.)

The southern portions of the Northwest Passage through the Arctic (the western route from Europe to Asia through the islands of northern Canada) opened in early August. Then in early September, ice scientists confirmed that the waters around the Russian coastline—the Northern Sea Route— were navigable, but still treacherous, with shifting floes of thick, multi-year ice, that could coalesce rapidly. The image shows that the widest avenue through the Northwest Passage, Parry Channel, still harbored some ice, but the more circuitous, southern waterways were clear. On the other side of the Arctic Ocean, the passage around Russia’s Taymyr Peninsula, normally locked in by ice, was similarly open. According to a press release from the U.S. National Ice Center, “This is the first recorded occurrence of the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route both being open at the same time.”

The summer opening of the Arctic means that new uses of the Arctic are likely to emerge. International legal experts believe that “existing laws governing everything from fish stocks to bio-prospecting by pharmaceutical companies” are inadequate.

To date, the eight Arctic nations (the United States, Russia, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark and Finland) have limited discussions to existing agreements, such as the law of the sea. Environmental groups would like new laws, but others have suggested a more feasible, and adaptive response may be to strengthen the role of the existing Arctic Council to better govern a changing Arctic in a more adaptive way.

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