The Northern Sea Route in 2018

Our usual excuse for an article such as this is an attempt by a “pleasure craft” such as the plucky little yacht Northabout to journey past Russia’s northern shores. I’m not aware of any such plans for this year, but here is some interesting NSR 2018 news. According to Reuters:

A Maersk vessel loaded with Russian fish and South Korean electronics will next week become the first container ship to navigate an Arctic sea route that Russia hopes will become a new shipping highway.

The Arctic voyage by the 3,600 20-foot container capacity Venta Maersk is the latest step in the expansion of the so-called Northern Sea Route which is becoming more accessible to ships as climate change reduces the amount of sea ice.

The brand new Venta Maersk, one of the world’s largest ice-class vessels, will also collect scientific data, said Maersk, underlining that the voyage is a one-off trial for now.


The press release continues:

The decision by Maersk, the world’s biggest container shipping group, to test out the route is a positive sign for Russia, which hopes this could become a mini Suez Canal, cutting sea transport times from Asia to Europe.

“A well-respected company like Maersk sending a container ship through the Arctic, definitely signals there’s something there,” Malte Humpert, a senior fellow at U.S.-based think-tank Arctic Institute, said.

“Currently, we do not see the Northern Sea Route as an alternative to our usual routes. Today, the passage is only feasible for around three months a year which may change with time,” a spokeswoman for Maersk said.

Here’s the sea ice situation that the Venta Maersk is heading for:


According to AMSR2 there’s still some sea ice quite close to shore in the East Siberian Sea. Meanwhile according to Marine Traffic the Venta Maersk has already left Vladivostok:


It will be a little while before she’s braving the dangers of the sea ice in the East Siberian Sea. Hopefully by that time we’ll have some clear satellite images at visual frequencies of anything solid in the path of all those containers. In the meantime here’s a glimpse through the clouds of the approximate ice edge on August 23rd:


Meanwhile the Hapag Lloyd cruise ship Bremen is currently en route from Tromso to Nome via the Northern Sea Route. She is currently crossing the Laptev Sea heading for the ESS “choke point” from the opposite direction:


Could Northabout Circumnavigate Greenland in 2018?

Our regular reader(s) may recall our extended coverage on the plucky little yacht Northabout‘s ultimately successful attempt to circumnavigate the Arctic Ocean in the summer of 2016?

Many were the skeptics who said she stood no chance of finding a way through some “thick sea ice” apparently blocking her path across the Laptev Sea, but they were proved wrong:

As a thought experiment in the summer of 2018 we’re now thinking the unthinkable. If she put her mind to it could Northabout circumnavigate Greenland in 2018? Let’s take a look at the evidence shall we? The allegedly “oldest, thickest Arctic sea ice” north of Greenland isn’t there any more this summer:



The research icebreaker Polarstern has already inspected the open waters off Kap Morris Jesup, the most northerly tip of Greenland:


What’s more the waters of the Lincoln Sea currently look no more tricky to traverse than the Laptev Sea in August 2016:


In conclusion, for the moment at least, what’s the theoretical solution to our 2018 thought experiment?

Here’s another thought to ponder as well. I don’t suppose it’s in the Alfred Wegener Institute’s PS115 mission plan, but do you suppose Polarstern could circumnavigate Greenland at the moment?


[Edit – August 23rd]

The University of Bremen used not to publish their Arctic sea ice “thinness” maps in summer. However now they do, so here’s a close up of Northern Greenland for August 22nd:



[Edit – August 26th]

First of all here’s one of our occasional sea ice motion videos:

This one reveals the open water north of Greenland in February as well as the much longer event in August. Next here’s a Sentinel 1B synthetic aperture radar image of the Kap Morris Jesup area from yesterday:


Meanwhile thanks to a heads up from Treform2 on the Arctic Sea Ice Forum comes evidence that on the other side of the Lincoln Sea the last remnants of the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf are “disintegrating”:


The Northwest Passage in 2018

The time has come to start speculating about if, and when, the Northwest Passage will become navigable for the host of small vessels eager to traverse it this summer. Almost one month later than in 2017!

Whilst the eastern and western entrances to the assorted routes through the Canadian Arctic Archipelaga have been empty of sea ice for quite some time, the central section between Bellot Strait and Gjoa Haven and/or Cambridge Bay is still chock a block:

In the east here is a drone’s eye view of Cumming Inlet, courtesy of the Polish team of Michał and Ola Palczyński aboard S/V Crystal:

created by dji camera
created by dji camera

It’s not entirely clear when that picture was taken, since according to Michał’s blog:

The waters beyond the Bellot Strait are covered with impassable ice, and the ice in the Beaufort Sea has 90% concentration in some places and reaches up to the shore. In this difficult situation, by 15th August two yachts have already given up and turned back to Greenland (including Blue Peter from our cove).

Here’s what lies ahead of Crystal and her remaining companions, according to the Canadian Ice Service:


Meanwhile in the Beaufort Sea S/V Dogbark has been battling her way through that “90% concentration” sea ice. Dogbark has now made it as far as Mikkelsen Bay, just past Prudhoe Bay in Alaska:


Here is the United States’ National Weather Service map of sea ice concentration in the area:


According to a recent Q&A session on the Dogbark blog:

What does 7/10ths ice mean? We don’t want to know! It is more ice than we want to try and pass, that’s for sure. But the ice charts we look at refer to ice by % of sea coverage, so 7/10ths would look like water mostly covered by large, immovable objects. 5/10ths was as much as we have seen, and we got out of there as fast as we could with some help from our flying eyeball. See Dogbark’s Facebook page for a quick snippet of less dangerous ice.

Meanwhile the Canadian icebreaker CCGS Amundsen has sailed past Arctic Bay and Resolute:


I cannot help but wonder what vessels might be closely following in his wake?


[Edit – September 7th]

Finally there comes news that a “pleasure craft” has made it through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago from east to west as far as Tuktoyaktuk. I’d been wondering which vessel it was that seemed immobile near the western end of the Bellot Strait on the MarineTraffic maps. This one’s from August 19th:


Now I know! Thanks to a heads up on the Arctic Sea Ice Forum I’ve discovered that it’s the S/V Thor. Here’s the tracking map of his efforts to get through all the old ice in the vicinty.


The map reveals that Thor made it through the Bellot Strait on August 6th, but didn’t manage to make significant headway out of the Franklin Strait until August 28th.

Thor departed from Tuk earlier today:


He now only has this to contend with:


USS Skate at the North Pole – Truth and Fantasy Fiction

Tony Heller (AKA “Steve Goddard”) is regurgitating submarine balderdash for the umpteenth time.

Under the headline “No Change In Arctic Sea Ice Over The Past 60 Years” Tony asserts:

Sixty years ago this week, the USS Skate surfaced at the North Pole. Arctic sea ice was two meters thick.

using these images as “evidence”:



Please note that according to the July 1959 issue of National Geographic magazine:

The winter sun still hid below the horizon last March 17 when USS Skate crunched up through the ice at 90° N – first ship in history ever to surface at the Pole.


Note also that when USS Skate surfaced at the North Pole on March 17th 1959 she was alone. There was no polynya to be seen, let alone a second submarine in one.

What do you suppose the odds are that Tony’s “No Change In Arctic Sea Ice Over The Past 60 Years” assertion is equally aberrant?


[Edit – August 18th]

A reader on Twitter, apparently a fan of Mr. Heller asks:

Of course there is! According to Commander James Calvert in the May 1959 edition of LIFE magazine:

On March 17 we arrived in the vicinity of the geographic North Pole. We had a job we very much wanted to do here, but as we cruised back and forth in the darkness below the Pole it seemed doubtful that we would be able to perform the last service requested by Sir Hubert Wilkins. No frozen leads or polynyas appeared. For a time I thought it would be necessary to conduct the service while submerged and discharge the ashes from one of the torpedo tubes as we passed under the pole.

Then suddenly we spotted the faint light of a small lead and we started up. This was our toughest surfacing so far. The quarters were cramped and we had to take special care not to hit Skate’s delicate rudder against the walls of ice. It took us two hours of careful maneuvering before Skate’s sail buckled the ice at the precise top of the world.

Climbing to the bridge I was greeted by an awesome sight. Skate was in a small lead completely surrounded by 10-foot-high hummocks of ice. This was the most inhospitable terrain we had seen so far.


Oden Reaches the North Pole All Too Easily Once Again

Our regular reader(s) may recall our extensive coverage of the Swedish icebreaker Oden’s visit to the North Pole (AKA Santa’s secret summer swimming pool) in 2016?

We are now able to report that Oden has been back at the North Pole once again, this time somewhat earlier in the season:


There’s not as much open water to be seen this year, although Oden’s visit is a week earlier than in 2016 so that may not be too surprising? What is perhaps surprising is that this year visiting the Pole wasn’t part of Oden’s plan! According to British physicist and oceanographer (and BBC TV star!) Helen Czerski:

Here’s Helen and friends pictured at the North Pole:


That was a couple of days ago, since when the sea ice floe Oden is attached to has drifted in the direction of the Atlantic Ocean:


We have asked Helen whether she is willing and able to provide our readers with an update on here recent experiences on the Oden:

We’ll let you know her reply as and when we receive it!

Facts About the Arctic in April 2018

First of all Wipneus has been very quick off the mark this month with his PIOMAS gridded thickness map. Here is what it reveals for the last day of March:


Here too is the latest PIOMAS volume graph:


together with the associated anomaly graph:


They show 2018 still in second lowest position, albeit much closer to third place than last year’s line, which is currently leading the pack by a considerable margin.

By way of comparison here are the current Arctic sea ice thickness maps from SMOS:


and CryoSat-2:


All eyes are still on the Bering and Chukchi Seas, where significant extent declines look likely over the coming days.


[Edit – April 4th]

The official PIOMAS graph including March 2018 is now available:


Meanwhile, according to NIPR/JAXA, Arctic sea ice extent is once again lowest for the date since their records began:



[Edit – April 6th]

The NSIDC 5 day averaged extent is now in “lowest in our records” territory:


Meanwhile “JAXA” extent has just edged above 2016!


[Edit – April 11th]

The focus has been on the Bering and Chukchi Seas until now. However there were clear skies over the Mackenzie Delta yesterday, revealing some open(ish) areas in the Beaufort Sea:

NASA Worldview “true-color” image of the Beaufort Sea on April 10th 2018, derived from the MODIS sensor on the Terra satellite
NASA Worldview “true-color” image of the Beaufort Sea on April 10th 2018, derived from the MODIS sensor on the Terra satellite

There’s only the merest hint of a blip on the area graph so far though:


It will be interesting to see if the decline in Beaufort Sea area continues from here, or whether this year’s “flatline” resumes and continues for a while longer.


[Edit – April 19th]

It’s not so apparent on the other extent metrics, but as the periphery melts the high resolution AMSR2 version looks to be heading into virgin territory on the downside:


HMS Trenchant Surfaces at Ice Camp Skate for ICEX 2018

In certain quarters it is being claimed in slightly strange English that:

The British Navy takes part in ICEX exercises that take place every two years and last for several weeks. Royal Navy submarine HMS Trenchant broke through the Arctic ice about seven days ago to join two US submarines for the exercise. At the same time, US submarines Hartford and Connecticut were stuck in the Arctic ice as they were training an attack on Russia. According to the legend of the exercises, the US submarines were supposed to surface and strike conditional targets in Russia, but the thick ice prevented them from fulfilling the scenario of the exercise.

However according to Her Majesty’s Royal Navy web site:

Royal Navy submarine HMS Trenchant has broken through the metre-thick ice of the Arctic Ocean to join two US boats on major exercise.

Ice Exercise 18 (ICEX) is a series of demanding trials in the frigid climate of the Arctic Circle, designed to test submariners’ skills in operating under the Arctic ice cap.

HMS Trenchant joins US submarines USS Connecticut and USS Hartford for the drills, co-ordinated by the US Navy’s Arctic Submarine Laboratory.

This combined team of military staff and scientists run the testing schedule from an ice camp established on an ice floe in the Arctic Ocean, north of Alaska.

Here is a video recording of HMS Trenchant getting “stuck in the Arctic ice”:

Here are some US Navy videos that reveal exactly how USS Connecticut and USS Hartford also became “stuck in the Arctic ice”:

According to a United States’ Department of Defense article on Ice Camp Skate:

Ice Camp Skate is a temporary ice camp that was established on a sheet of ice in the Arctic Ocean, known as an ice floe. Skate will serve as a temporary command center for conducting submarine operations, including under-ice navigation and torpedo exercises. The camp consists of shelters, a command center, and infrastructure to safely house and support more than 50 personnel at any one time.

The camp gets its namesake from USS Skate, the first submarine to surface through open water surrounded by ice in 1958, and the first submarine to surface through the Arctic ice at the North Pole in March 1959. Since the success of Skate’s surfacing, Arctic operations have been a crucial part of the missions conducted by nuclear submarines.

For more than 70 years, submarines have conducted under-ice operations in the Arctic regions in support of interfleet transit, training, cooperative allied engagements and routine operations.

The U.S. submarine force has completed more than 27 Arctic exercises.


[Edit – April 10th]

NASA’s Operation IceBridge have released some images of the now abandoned ICEX 2018 site on their Facebook page. They include a damaged and apparently abandoned Twin Otter aircraft:




The 2018 Maximum Arctic Sea Ice Extent

According to the latest edition of the National Snow and Ice Data Center’s “Arctic Sea Ice News”

On March 17, 2018, Arctic sea ice likely reached its maximum extent for the year, at 14.48 million square kilometers (5.59 million square miles), the second lowest in the 39-year satellite record, falling just behind 2017. This year’s maximum extent is 1.16 million square kilometers (448,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average maximum of 15.64 million square kilometers (6.04 million square miles).

The four lowest seasonal maxima have all occurred during the last four years. The 2018 maximum is 60,000 square kilometers (23,200 square miles) above the record low maximum that occurred on March 7, 2017.

Here’s a close up view of recent maxima via the NSIDC’s Charctic interactive sea ice graph:


Next let’s take a look at extent data from the Japanese National Institute of Polar Research, colloquially referred to as “JAXA extent”


In this case the maximum was 13.89 million square kilometers, also on March 17th.

Here too are the extent and area graphs based on Wipneus’ processing of the University of Hamburg’s AMSR2 based concentration data:



They highlight the surge in Arctic sea ice area in the middle of March due to the sudden “cold snap”:

Looking at the third Arctic dimension, here’s the latest SMOS thickness map from the University of Bremen:


and here’s the latest CryoSat-2 thickness map:


They reveal large areas of relatively thin sea ice in the Okhotsk and Barents Seas where the ice can now be expected to melt as quickly as it formed. There is also remarkably little sea ice in the Bering Sea for the time of year:


The February 2018 Fram Strait Cyclones

As already mentioned in our February Arctic overview, another storm is brewing. Here is this morning’s weather forecast for Longyearbyen, the capital of Svalbard:


Much like last month, temperatures are above zero and rain is forecast. That’s because once again the current synoptic chart from Environment Canada shows a warm wet flow from way down south over Svalbard and on into the Central Arctic:


Next here’s the current combined wave and swell height forecast for the Svalbard area:

Significant_height_of_combined_w in multi_1.glo_15mext.20180204_00037

and here’s the associated wave period forecast:

Mean_period_of_wind_waves_surfac in multi_1.glo_15mext.20180204_00037

It’s still showing 10 meter waves with a 15 second period north of Svalbard tomorrow lunchtime. Somewhat unusually for the Arctic these aren’t merely giant wind waves. Zooming in on the Fram Strait and breaking out the underlying primary swell reveals:

Significant_height_of_swell_wave in multi_1.glo_15mext.20180204_00041

Mean_period_of_swell_waves_order in multi_1.glo_15mext.20180204_00041

A long distance swell of that magnitude is going to cause some damage.


[Edit – February 5th]

The current ECMWF forecast for a split polar vortex, courtesy of Ice Shieldz on the Arctic Sea Ice Forum:

Polar View Wind Speed 10 hPa 20180204

This is suggestive of more cyclones to come, but sticking with the current one for now, here is the MSLP chart at 00:00 UTC this morning showing the cyclone’s central pressure has dropped to 952 hPa:


Here too is the current WaveWatch III forecast for 15:00 UTC today:

Significant_height_of_combined_w in multi_1.glo_15mext.20180205_00016

Mean_period_of_wind_waves_surfac in multi_1.glo_15mext.20180205_00016

The peak of the swell north of Svalbard is now slightly later than originally forecast, but it’s still enormous!

Here’s a single Sentinel 1B synthetic aperture radar image that captures the position of the ice edge north of Svalbard yesterday quite nicely:



[Edit – February 7th]

A brief overview of the effect of the recent cyclone on the sea ice in the Arctic via AMSR2:




Click the image to animate it.


[Edit – February 8th]

An Arctic wide take via Thomas Lavergne on Twitter:

plus the latest AMSR2 concentration map:



[Edit – February 9th]

An interesting insight into CryoSat-2 sea ice thickness measurements from Stefan Hendricks on Twitter:

Plus Judah Cohen on the split polar vortex:

Facts About the Arctic in February 2018

Whilst the official PIOMAS volume figures for January have yet to be released Wipneus has worked his usual magic on the gridded thickness numbers to reveal:


not to mention the calculated volume:


and the volume anomaly:


As Wipneus puts it:

Estimated from the thickness data, the latest value is from 31st of January: 17.57 [1000 km3], which is the second lowest value for that day, 2017 is lowest by a rather large margin at 16.16 [1000 km3].

Here are the “measured” thickness maps from SMOS:


and CryoSat-2:


Here are the end of January Arctic wide high resolution AMSR2 graphs based on University of Hamburg data:



In addition, since it’s that time of year, here too is Wipneus’ NSIDC global sea ice extent:


The minimum thus far is very slightly above last year’s value, but perhaps like last year there will be a “double dip”?

Getting back to the Arctic, here is the DMI >80N temperature plot for January:


together with the associated freezing degree days graph:


Here’s a video showing the effect of the mid January cyclones on the sea ice in the Fram Strait and north of Svalbard:

Finally, for the moment at least, here is the current Fram Strait surf forecast for 12:00 UTC on February 5th:

Significant_height_of_combined_w in multi_1.glo_30mext.20180203_00021

Mean_period_of_wind_waves_surfac in multi_1.glo_30mext.20180203_00021

Those maps shows 10 meter high, 15 second period waves heading straight for the ice edge north of Svalbard.


[Edit – February 7th]

The latest edition of Arctic Sea Ice News has been published. As the NSIDC put it:

January of 2018 began and ended with satellite-era record lows in Arctic sea ice extent, resulting in a new record low for the month. Combined with low ice extent in the Antarctic, global sea ice extent is also at a record low.


Air temperatures at the 925 hPa level (about 2,500 feet above sea level) remained unusually high over the Arctic Ocean. Nearly all of the region was at least 3 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit) or more above average. The largest departures from average of more than 9 degrees Celsius (16 degrees Fahrenheit) were over the Kara and Barents Seas, centered near Svalbard. On the Pacific side, air temperatures were about 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit) above average. By contrast, 925 hPa temperatures over Siberia were up to 4 degrees Celsius (7 degrees Fahrenheit) below average. The warmth over the Arctic Ocean appears to result partly from a pattern of atmospheric circulation bringing in southerly air, and partly from the release of heat into the atmosphere from open water areas.



[Edit – February 10th]

The University of Hamburg’s high resolution AMSR2 derived area is bouncing back after the recent cyclone, but extent is currently still declining:



The recent drop in Arctic sea ice extent has pushed the NSIDC global extent to a new all time (satellite era!) low: