Arctic sea ice still too thick for regular shipping route through Northwest Passage

From YORK UNIVERSITY and the “paging Dr. Peter Wadhams” department…


Northwest passage routes. Stock Image: Wikipedia

TORONTO, September 29, 2015  – Despite climate change, sea ice in the (NWP) remains too thick and treacherous for it to be a regular commercial Arctic shipping route for many decades, according to new research out of York University.

Prior to this research, there was little information about the thickness of sea ice in the NWP, which meanders through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Yet, next to ice coverage and type, sea ice thickness plays the most important role in assessing shipping hazards and predicting ice break-up.

“While everyone only looks at ice extent or area, because it is so easy to do with satellites, we study ice thickness, which is important to assess overall changes of ice volume, and helps to understand why and where the ice is most vulnerable to summer melt,” says lead researcher York Professor Christian Haas, the Canada Research Chair for Arctic Sea Ice Geophysics.

The research paper, “Ice Thickness in the Northwest Passage“, was published in the journalGeophysical Research Letters .

Haas and his team, including Stephen Howell of Environment Canada, measured first-year and multiyear ice thickness in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago using an airplane equipped with an electromagnetic induction sounder or EM bird. They surveyed the ice in April and May of 2011 and again in 2015. It is considered the first large-scale assessment of ice thickness in the area.

The surveys found a modal thickness of 1.8 to two metres in most regions of the NWP and mean thickness of between two and three metres. Ice originating from the Arctic Ocean showed a mean thickness of more than three metres on average. Some multiyear ice regions contained much thicker, deformed ice that was more than 100 m wide and more than four metres thick.

“This is the first-ever such survey in the Northwest Passage, and we were surprised to find this much thick ice in the region in late winter, despite the fact that there is more and more open water in recent years during late summer,” says Haas. “This points to the importance of ice transport from the high Arctic and melt processes during the spring season, which critically depend on weather conditions and how they affect the melting of thick ice.”

Although the results were obtained in late winter when no ships travel the route, they will impact how ice break-up and summer ice conditions develop and are currently predicted, and help forecast the opening and navigability of the NWP during summer. It will also affect how sea ice hazards are assessed during the shipping season and provide baseline data going forward.

The NWP, comprised of a series of gulfs, straits, sounds and channels that connect the Beaufort Sea in the west with Baffin Bay in the east, is a much shorter route for moving goods between the Pacific and Atlantic regions than the Panama and Suez Canals. At the moment, this year’s annual summer minimum Arctic-wide ice coverage is the fourth lowest on record, with similar low coverage in the NWP, according to information provided by the Canadian Ice Service.

How climate change will affect the summer ice in the NWP in the future, however, is difficult to predict, says Haas. Further melting could cause more multiyear ice from the Arctic Ocean to drift into the NWP, making it less, not more passable.



Recently, the feasibility of commercial shipping in the ice-prone Northwest Passage (NWP) has attracted a lot of attention. However, very little ice thickness information actually exists. We present results of the first ever airborne electromagnetic ice thickness surveys over the NWP carried out in April and May 2011 and 2015 over first-year and multiyear ice. These show modal thicknesses between 1.8 and 2.0 m in all regions. Mean thicknesses over 3 m and thick, deformed ice were observed over some multiyear ice regimes shown to originate from the Arctic Ocean. Thick ice features more than 100 m wide and thicker than 4 m occurred frequently. Results indicate that even in today’s climate, ice conditions must still be considered severe. These results have important implications for the prediction of ice breakup and summer ice conditions, and the assessment of sea ice hazards during the summer shipping season.

Full paper here:

Note: this article was updated shortly after publication to make the link to the paper active. The date on the Toronto byline was also edited to read 2015, not 2005, as it originally and erroneously appeared in the press release

86 thoughts on “Arctic sea ice still too thick for regular shipping route through Northwest Passage

  1. At least the maritime insurance business will read the report if climate modelers and alarm horn blowers do not.

    • At least shipping lines will be disappointing.

      Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment Report2009
      “…There is a possibility of an ice-free Arctic Ocean for a short period in summer perhaps as early as 2015. This would mean the disappearance of multi-year ice, as no sea ice would survive the summer melt season…..
      …For the Canadian Arctic, the Northwest Passage is not expected to become a viable trans-Arctic route through 2020, but destinational shipping is anticipated to increase….”
      [The Arctic Council’s AMSA Report]

      “no sea ice would survive”! On the contrary my dear Watson.I hope they didn’t pay Wadhams for any ‘consultation’. 😉

    • I don’t know what the state of the Arctic was like during the Medieval Warm Period, but here is the Northwest Passage.

      3. A final peak of bowhead bones dated about 1.5–0.75 ka has been found in all three regions, suggesting an open Northwest Passage during at least some summers. During this interval the bowhead-hunting Thule Inuit (Eskimo) expanded eastward out of the BERING SEA region and ultimately spread to GREENLAND and Labrador

    • In view of the global catastrophe that would befall us, if the Arctic sea ice ever all melted, I believe that it should be illegal under United Nothing regulations, for anyone to deliberately break up any sea ice structures in the arctic ocean, including trying to make a navigable passage through there. Get all those Russian ice breakers out of there.

      • the global catastrophe that would befall us
        nonsense. the arctic was pretty much ice free from 10000-6000 years ago, about the time modern human civilization was first developing.
        an ice free arctic would open up a vast northern portion of the world to trade, travel, agriculture and settlement. a region of the earth that today is extremely hostile to human settlement. Except for fossil fuels, human settlement in the arctic would be almost non-existent.

      • Ferd, I never would have expected to get a grab on that cast. The phony pheathers seemed too obvious for that.

      • In 1944 the wooden RCMP patrol boat St Roche, about 125 ft in length sailed from Halifax to Vancouver in 88 days. They went by the northern route.

    • Some guy no one heard of went through it in a wooden sloop in the early twentieth century.
      Oh, wait…maybe some have heard of him.

  2. But not too thick in 1930 for ships not ice strengthened or with ice breaker assistance or modern navigational aids.
    “North-West Passage
    For the first time in its history
    three ships of the Hudson’s Bay
    Company have made the hazardous
    North-West Passage in one season.
    They are the Fort James, a stout
    little schooner of 130 tons with a crew
    of fewer than 20 souls, the even
    smaller Macpherson, which is perman-
    ently stationed in the Arctic seas, and
    the Baychimo, a vessel of 1,500 tons”

    • Didn’t happen, those ships made partial transits, Fort James actually sank in the NW Passage by being crouched in the ice, observed by Larsen (St Roche) who rescued the crew etc from the Fort James.

    • Didn’t happen, those ships made partial transits, Fort James actually sank in the NW Passage by being crushed in the ice, observed by Larsen (St Roche) who rescued the crew etc from the Fort James.

    • The unofficial Canadian national anthem. If we ever get a team to the World Cup again (men’s), this should be morphed into our team song. “For just one time, we would make the final cut”.

    • Thanks for that, nice refresher over my lunch break. Next only to the “North Atlantic Squadron” but we sure don’t want to go there. 😉 (Old Air Cadet theme song, sort of.)

  3. I seem to recall, sometime around the mid ’70s, there was a similar excitement. The Northwest Passage would open permanently, allowing a new shipping route, possibly as early as the 1990s. Also, new vistas for oil and mineral exploration would open up. But there was a dark cloud on the horizon. The Soviet Union would exploit the new access to the arctic region to expand it’s strategic sphere of influence. Worse, the USSR was better positioned to take quick advantage of the thinning ice. They had more and larger icebreakers. There was an icebreaker gap. The US and Canada had to move quickly to counter the threat.
    The good old days.

      • There probably is oil and quite a lot of it in the Arctic but with oil at around $50 per barrel its not worth pursuing. Fact is Shell like all the oil companies is hurting badly. Revenue for the first quarter of 2015 was sharply down compared the same period last year. Given that fact all the majors are cutting back on high cost long term projects and Arctic drilling is VERY expensive. The ticket price of $7 billion for the project is unaffordable representing as it does over 3 months revenue.

      • Pshaw!
        Any self-respecting oil man would be happy to pawn his own daughters braces for the cash to sink a potentially profitable well, no matter how long the payback.
        If oil is running out, how long will $50 per barrel hold?
        (BTW, I think we have not seen the bottom in this cycle. I would guess sub $30 will be seen briefly before a sustained recovery in prices occurs.)

      • Winter of 1982/83 I worked on a land rig out on the ice over 1000 ft of water. It was off the coast of Ellef Ringnes Island at about 78 degree’s Latitude. We well tested something. Pretty sure it was oil. Can’t ever see that being exploited.

  4. I am sure arctic sea ice is becoming ever more treacherous as climate disruption proceeds. It may even grow up to 27.93% more treacherous by the end of this century, according to some projections. Shiver, shake &. tremble.

    • I believe you may be overestimating the chance of an increase in treacherous conditions, Berenyi.
      My calculations show no greater than a 27.91% chance.

  5. I have never been to the Arctic; closest I’ve gone is Duluth-Superior. From my experience, even that far south has some fearsome winter experiences in store even for the wary; by comparison, the true Arctic is far more awesome and dangerous. The predictions of an ice-free Arctic strike me as akin to the ones saying that the world will end at 7:13 a.m. on January 23, 2018. Even scientists still know far too little about the region and its weather and climate. To read some of the “warmists,” one would think of the Arctic crossing in the same terms as a summer cruise in some sheltered bays of the Mediterranean; in fact, I expect that Arctic crossings will continue to be difficult, scary, and perilous for as long as any of us live.

    • I’ve been to Circle City, Alaska by VW (non diesel), departing from St Charles, MO, where the Oregon Trail started, or at least the Lewis and Clarke Expedition.. That’s about where the Yukon river turns west, and heads off to Nome, on the coast. I was walking around in shorts and T-shirt at 10 PM in July, taking photographs in the available light. (Kind of bluish).

    • John Ware – famous Canadian Cowboy from the US.
      Just for interest, on the arctic cold, look at the DMI north of 80 on the sea ice page – about freezing for maybe 75 days.
      Iqualuit near the entrance to Hudson Bay on Baffin Island – average temperature from Environment Canada 1946 to 2007 from one weather station is -9 C for pretty much the whole record. No warming. Typical winter temperature is 30 to 35 below. Located on Frobisher Bay, 33.5 metres above sea level.
      Cambridge Bay located on Victoria Island much farther west. The record from 1929 to 2014 shows the average temperature rose from about -16C to -13.5 mostly due to LESS cold. For example extreme minimums in the 30’s were typically 50 below, in recent years the extreme minimums have been around 45 below. Conversely the extreme maximums have gone from plus 25 to plus 20 over the 85 years of records. Curious.
      Alert, Nunavit, at 82.3N on the tip of Ellesmere Island – Environment Canada – 1950 – 2007 shows the same feature of cooling maximums and less cold minimums though the overall trend is slight cooling. Extreme minimums around 45 below but moderating slightly.
      Siting of the weather stations and activity may have an affect as discussed for Eureka temperatures on WUWT a few years ago. Eureka at 80N and 10 metres above sea level shows about 2 degrees of warming from 1947 to 2013 January temperatures show the same interesting trend as many other locations – lower high temperatures and less cold low temperatures.
      I see the same feature in records from Environment Canada all the way to the 49th parallel across the west at least. Medicine Hat, Alberta has a continuous Environment Canada record from 1883 to 2007 – 125 years. On average no warming trend in the entire record. But the extreme minimums have moderated from minus 45C to about minus 35C. The highs have dropped from plus 40 to between 37 and 38. I don’t know how much of this would be due to UHI or other affects but it is interesting that in what is really a desert, there is NO trend overall in the mean temperature reported by Environment Canada (EC).
      I don’t know why I see this moderating trend, but it is the same where I live. The 1917 to 2007 EC record for Rocky Mountain House, Alberta shows the same moderation of extreme temperatures as well as the mean Max and mean Min.
      More clouds?

      • I would say it’s also possible that low temperatures as recorded 100 years ago were of questionable accuracy. Here in Calgary I’ve seen -40C on a mercury thermometer where digital ones (probably more accurate) only showed -35C.
        Some people do forget that you can’t compare two different measuring techniques and panic about the results.

    • What many people know about the arctic, or nature in general, was probably learned by watching Hollywood movies. I only say this because I have wanted to say it for a long time :).

      • Everything I know about it was learned during the hellish three months I worked the dairy aisle at a supermarket, and had to walk into a giant cooler several times an hour.
        Do you know they put actual high speed fans in those things, as if it was not cold enough already?

  6. ” Further melting could cause more multiyear ice from the Arctic Ocean to drift into the NWP, making it less, not more passable”
    “Thick ice features more than 100 m wide and thicker than 4 m occurred frequently”
    Quite wonderful how the ice melt can increase the thickness of the ice, apparently without too much freezing. since it happens during the summer melt. I wonder when they will stop trying to find excuses for the thickness of the ice in the NW Passage that continues to disappoint all the AGW fanatics that write about it and who are praying for the NW Passage to clear of ice to support their last 20 year forecasts.

    • Thick MY ice used to block the N-S passages through the Archipelago while the E-W passages could clear. Now that MYI has broken up and melts so now it’s possible for the remaining thinner fragments to flow south more freely.

  7. So to predict the state of the NWP ice in summer, they measured the ice in winter. Huh?
    Why did they not just measure the ice in summer? Or did they, and there was so much ice they thought they’d better not mention it?

  8. In the mid to late 1980’s there was a shift in prevailing winds that pushed the ice away from Siberia and towards the Canadian islands. That’s where the older, thicker ice is now, so the Northeast Passage along the Russian coast is more likely to be open, if any.
    It’s about the same distance as the Northwest Passage from Europe, but substantially longer from the US east coast. Both are a mere fraction of the distance required to get to Asia through the Panama Canal.

  9. Don’t forget the new ship of fools is due to set off on their very expensive NWP cruise in January, one to watch methinks.

  10. Any article that starts ” Despite climate change ” presupposes that climate change is happening. Maybe if what was expected to happen is not happening ie that the ice is not melting away, maybe climate change Aka global warming is not happening. It’s a great example of how confirmation bias influences virtually all the alarmist research that is released.

  11. “…and we were surprised to find this much thick ice in the region in late winter, despite the fact that there is more and more open water in recent years during late summer,”
    They are still promoting the global warming meme and now using the thickness of the ice as the reason it hasn’t all melted away yet, so they are covering their bases and will continue their dire cry. Basically they are looking for excuses and for ways to prolong the must-do-something-before-it’s-too-late message.

  12. ‘sea ice in the (NWP) remains too thick and treacherous for it to be a regular commercial Arctic shipping route for many decades’
    For many decades? They don’t know that.

    • Correct, the original name of Toronto was York, and the name persists. It’s a mid-tier university, generally good for social studies and such. Didn’t know they did earth sciences, it’s certainly not what they are known for.

      • I thought it might be that one. Can be confusing when Universities have similar names. The University of Canterbury is in NZ, the University of Kent at Canterbury is in the UK, and Kent State University is in the US. Oxford Brooks University is not THE Oxford University, even though they are both in Oxford. Miami University is in Oxford*, too, and not Miami, but the University of Miami is in Miami.
        (But not the same Oxford.)

  13. Congratulations to the authors of a nice piece of original research, generating new, real-world data, with clear logic and sound conclusions.
    BUT, they had to get in allusions to the global warming scenario, with snippets like “even in today’s climate” and reference to “future climate model projections”. It’s implicitly accepted that the climate has not only got warmer (which the Arctic has, mostly by winters getting a bit less cold), but is going to keep on warming indefinitely into the foreseeable future. Quite mild in this paper, but the bias is there, and it’s nearly always there in papers posted by Anthony on this site, that present data or analysis antithetic to AGW.
    You know what this reminds me of? Scientific papers that used to come out of the old Soviet Union. Any author, in those gloomy years, with an eye to career advancement would include a few words about the wisdom of the communist party, or allude to the latest pronouncements of the General Secretary. Soviets did good research, but were terribly hesitant to draw conclusions that might not agree with currently “accepted” hypotheses (i.e. accepted by those higher up the academic/political food chain). There was an overwhelming orthodoxy that nobody in his or her right mind, would dare to challenge, and smart authors would always pay homage to it. You could use published Soviet data, but their conclusions were either too conventional to bother with, or not really there at all..
    How did we ever get to this place? How could a handful of self-promoters doing rather dubious research, get to dominate the whole government/academic scientific establishment for twenty-plus years, so that it takes genuine courage to voice even a mildly dissenting view? How could normally penny-pinching governments that are supposedly accountable to their electorates (and never shut up about their fiscal responsibility), get so dazzled by all this that they unleash unprecedented rivers of cash for studies that shore up the conclusions of the orthodoxy? Or even bigger rivers of cash to subsidize renewable energy systems that would not stand on their own in a free market? How can people with obvious intellectual abilities accept it all without question, and parrot it in public? How can apparently normal people argue for prosecution of those who don’t agree with them? How can mainstream media publish rants like that with a straight face? What does this all say about the human race in the twenty-first century? Are we so uncomfortable with our material well-being that we unconsciously yearn for an apocalypse? Are we tired of being rational? Have we lost the ability to think for ourselves? The questions just go on and on.
    PS, still waiting for my September payment from Koch Industries. Long post like this, should be good for a couple of hundred bucks?

    • Robin W-
      Maybe earlier-
      North-west Passage.
      Colonial Times (Hobart, Tas. : 1828 – 1857) Tuesday 15 October 1839 p 5 Article
      … North-west Passage. From a number of the Penny Magazine, for April 1838 … , we gather the intelligence, that the north-west passage has been achieved,

    • Limbaugh is being sloppy and over-generalizing. But this is what happens when the public finds that critical data (in this case the surface temperature record) have been subject to manipulation. This isn’t just “bonkers right-wingers”; it’s called “fall-out” or “what did you expect would happen?”. After all, if you discover that you can’t trust the temperature record, why should you trust the curves for ice extent, or any other official govt figures?

  14. Antarctic Situation at 2015 September 28
    Antarctic ozone today: Ozone depletion is now extensive and the ozone hole covers Antarctica. The ozone hole grew rapidly from mid August onwards and is near its largest at some 25 million square kilometres. This is a larger hole than the average of those over the last decade. The ozone distribution is that of mid spring with lowest and still decreasing ozone amounts across the continent, particularly the Atlantic sector, and higher (and increasing) values around the Southern Ocean. Ozone is declining by about 1% per day near the centre of the ozone hole. Values currently range from around 130 DU over West Antarctica to near 400 DU over parts of the Southern Ocean. These highest values are lower than at the same time last year. There are significant differences between the various satellite measurements. Temperatures in the lower part of the ozone layer are below the threshold for Polar Stratospheric Cloud (PSC) formation over much of Antarctica and the area with PSCs is larger than average, but is now decreasing. Through most of the ozone layer temperatures are below the long term average but are beginning to warm and in the higher parts of the ozone layer are above the PSC formation threshold. The polar vortex is near average in size at most levels except the highest and lowest, where it is significantly larger than average.
    The 2015 ozone hole: Ozone hole levels were briefly reached over the Antarctic Peninsula on August 5 with significant depletion beginning in mid August. Depletion became more widespread by September, exceeding the mean for the last decade and greater than in the last couple of years. The polar vortex was the largest over the past decade in the upper part of the ozone layer from July to September and the area with PSCs was also larger than average during this period.

  15. What a bunch of hog wash rhetoric – If you go looking for thick ice you can find ice… if you go looking for a Northwest Passage navigation route you have seven (7) routes to select from… in 2015 ALL SEVEN NW PASSAGE ROUTES WERE OPEN. Gentlemen please stop regurgitating the media’s ice cube garbage… Please consider the following “major” voyages through the Northwest Passage – in 2014 NUNAVIK carried 23,000 tons of ore, in 2013 NORDIC ORION carried 73,000 tons of coal and in 2012 the 43,524 GT private cruise ship THE WORLD transit the Northwest Passage. There are many others transits… check the records. There have been more than thirty “small craft” (yachts) transit the NW Passage in the last three years. THAT THICK ICE DIDN’T STOP THOSE TINY FIBERGLASS YACHTS. BECAUSE THEY WERE LOOKING FOR A ROUTE OF NAVIGATION – NOT THICK SEA ICE. EVERY YEAR BOATS ARE TRANSITING THE NW PASSAGE – IF YOU WANT TO MAKE A NW PASSAGE VOYAGE ANYONE CAN – HIRE A VETERAN ICE PILOT NAVIGATOR AND THROW THE LINES. THE PROOF IS IN THE RECORDS – TAKE A LOOK HERE:

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