Sunday, February 10, 2013

HISTORY: In 1997 a Finland tanker transits the Arctic Northern Sea Route

In 1997, the Uikku tanker of Finland became the first commercial ship to traverse unimpeded through the Northeast Passage from waters above Norway to the Bering Sea between Russia and Alaska. That signalled the end of a quest just four years more than five centuries old.
MV Nordic BarentsThis picture shows Norwegian company Tschudi Shipping's MV Nordic Barents, the first non-Russian vessel to use the Northern Sea Route to China in 2010MV Nordic Barents
Photo: Nordic Bulk Carriers A/S

This quest had been triggered in 1493 when Pope Alexander VI issued Inter Caetera, a papal bull that divided the discovered world between Spain and Portugal. That left England, France, and the Netherlands with no sea routes to Asia. The ban was much ignored but nonetheless triggered the quest for northern alternatives to voyages south around Africa.
The English, the master navigators of their day, were first to mount expeditions seeking sea passages in Arctic waters. Hugh Willoughby went northeast with three ships in 1553, and Martin Frobisher went northwest with three barks some 23 years later.
Thereafter there were 40 some expeditions, divided about equally between those seeking the Northeast Passage and those seeking the Northwest Passage.
Most were marginally successful. Some were disastrous, such as John Franklin’s Northwest Passage expedition of 1845 on which almost everything went wrong and 11 of the party died.
Finally the passages were proven to exist: the Northeast 1878-79 Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld-led Swedish Vega expedition, and the Northwest in 1903-1906 by Roald Amundsen of Norway in the Gjøa.
But proving that the passages were there did not lead to their immediate navigation. Held back by being blocked in the Arctic ice, the Nordenskiöld expedition had taken a year.
Amundsen had taken three years, hardly viable voyage times for commercial shipping. That was status quo for most of the last century.
The Arctic passages were known, but coping with the ice in them was another matter. Some suggestions were put forth to avoid the ice by going under it in cargo-carrying submarines. In the First World War, the German navy proved cargo Satellite image mosaic, Arctic Ocean, 9/2007, NW Passage open (orange line) 
Arctic Ocean, 9/2007, NW Passage open (orange line)
European Space Agency, all rights reserved
submarines to be technically feasible, and nuclear-powered American, British, and Russian navy submarines had shown that it was possible to traverse the Arctic under the ice cap during the Cold War.
But the submarine solution was found impractical and expensive for civilian applications. Apparently, nobody thought that global warming brought about by human activity would lead to melting the ice. But that now seems to be what is happening.
Satellites in the summer of 2008 observed that the Northeast Passage, now known by the Russian name, Northern Sea Route (NSR), and the Northwest Passage both were open for the first time since satellite monitoring of the Arctic began in the 1970s. Records suggested that perhaps a new regime had begun, with the extent of summer sea ice declining year-by-year.
In August 2011, evidence of that trend came literally in a big way. TheVladimir Tikhonov supertanker, owned by Sovcomflot of Russia, completed a one-week transit of the NSR.
The Uikku tanker of Finland had been the first in 1997 but the Vladimir Tikhonov was by far the biggest yet at 160,000 deadweight tons – ten times the tonnage of the Uikku. Vladimir Tikhonov is a “Suezmax” tanker, which means that it’s the largest size of vessel that can fit through the Suez Canal.
Some photos of the Vladimir Tikhonov supertanker show it sailing in calm, nearly ice-free waters, accompanied by the 50 let Pobedy (“50th Anniversary of Victory”) Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker. That reflects the remaining unknown aspects of polar sea ice.
More needs to be known about the thickness as well as the extent of the sea ice, not only for Arctic navigation but principally to understand how climate change is affecting vulnerable polar regions.
In 1998, the European Space Agency (ESA) responded to that challenge by initiating the CryoSat program of satellites designed to measure the thickness of sea ice.
The first CryoSat satellite was launched 2005, but was lost in a launch failure. Its replacement was launched in April 2010 and achieved its purpose admirably.
Arctic sea ice max thickness map (Jan/Feb '11) 
Arctic sea ice max thickness map (Jan/Feb '11) 
ESA released the first-ever detailed maps of Arctic sea ice thickness at the Paris Air and Space Show in June 2011. In time, the maps will enable scientists to improve the understanding of how much and why Arctic sea ice is thinning due to changing climate.
The thinning of the ice is the most visible change, but other far-reaching changes are underway. The warming of the Arctic also is affecting marine life as cold-adapted species are moving north, which is perhaps the most significant.
Satellites have recently been used to study the extent of that migration. In August 2010, two bowhead whales – one from waters around Alaska and the other from West Greenland – entered the Northwest Passage from opposite directions and spent ten days in the same area in the Canadian High Arctic.
Their movements were precisely known, as the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources in Nuuk had tagged them with satellite transmitters by.
For ships, the opening of passages in Arctic waters may benefit bowheads. But it may be a disaster for walruses that need sea ice on which to breed.
That in turn will affect many Inuits for whom Walrus hunting is a mainstay.

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