The ice-free Arctic Ocean is another step closer to becoming a permanent feature of the planet. This year’s minimum ice extent for the Arctic Sea was the lowest in the satellite record, according to satellite observations from the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC).
But this year’s ice-free window is far less than the several months of ice cover we saw during the summer of 2011 and the summer of 2012, when thousands of ships and thousands of people sailed through the Arctic Ocean to access a new sea route for shipping and energy infrastructure.
In fact, 2016 was the first year that a ship without a hull began to traverse the Arctic Ocean, heading toward Antarctica through the Northwest Passage, which opened up after the passage ice that protects it melted. This year’s ship (the Arctic Sunrise, a group of researchers) will reverse the last section of the voyage back to the shipping hub of Vancouver Island.
Over the next three months, warming temperatures are expected to continue, which could further reduce the ice cover and therefore increase shipping by the ice-free window. But the risk is still lower, perhaps only around the middle of the August to mid-September period for the shipping season, according to NSIDC. If the last few years are any indication, a longer ice-free window might be reached sometime in the summer of 2019.
For the duration of the shipping season, there will be plenty of fishing, mining and oil and gas exploration on the Arctic Ocean that will proceed as planned. The NSIDC also stated in a press release that this season’s melt is “within the 99-year average for a weak year and not statistically significant in the context of the modern record (and was the largest group of four years in a row since 1979).”
It’s important to mention the fact that this year’s ice-free window (and other recent years of ice cover that are below average) is still a benchmark for measuring a global warming trend. Scientists are unsure whether it’s a blip or a sign of things to come.