Arctic sea ice shrunk this week to its lowest level since satellite measurements began nearly 30 years ago, so much that it has opened up the most direct route of the Northwest Passage--a legendary frozen sea route above North America and Siberia linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
Arctic sea ice normally recedes in the summer, but satellite data collected by the European Space Agency's Envisat probe, has shown that the overall rate of ice loss has sped up drastically in the past 10 years.
"There has been a reduction of the ice cover over the last 10 years of about 100,000 square kilometers [62,137 square miles] per year on average," said Leif Toudal Pedersen of the Danish National Space Centre, "so a drop of 1 million square kilometers [621,371 square miles] in just one year is extreme."
While the Northeast Passage along the Siberian coast remains partially blocked, the Passage's most direct route now is navigable across northern Canada. However, Pedersen says, the complete passage may open sooner than expected.
The fabled Northwest Passage, if fully navigable, could make the trip 4,000 miles shorter for ships traveling between Europe and Asia if they could avoid the Panama Canal route. The passage was first navigated by explorer Roald Amundsen in 1903 to 1906.
Even when the Arctic ice pack dropped to a previous low of 4 million
square kilometers in 2005, the passage did not fully open, Pedersen
Earth's polar regions are highly vulnerable to rising temperatures spurred by climate change. While the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts an ice-free Arctic summer by 2070, other scientists foresee such a scenario as early as 2040.