From: Francois Murphy, Reuters
Published September 21, 2006 12:00 AM

Thaw and Storms Opened Channel to North Pole

PARIS — A warm summer and late storms in the past few months briefly opened a channel in the Arctic ice big enough to allow a ship to sail to the North Pole, the European Space Agency (ESA) said on Wednesday.

The agency said satellite images showed "dramatic openings" over an area bigger than the British Isles in the Arctic's sea ice, which normally stays frozen all year.

"This situation is unlike anything observed in previous record low ice seasons," Mark Drinkwater of ESA's Oceans/Ice Unit said in a statement.

Late summer storms had fragmented between 5 and 10 percent of the Arctic's perennial sea ice after it survived the summer melt season, ESA said. The agency's satellite images were taken between Aug. 23 and Aug. 25.

"It is highly imaginable that a ship could have passed from Spitzbergen or northern Siberia through what is normally pack ice to reach the North Pole without difficulty," Drinkwater added. Spitzbergen is a Norwegian island in the Arctic Ocean.

ESA said colder autumn temperatures had begun to freeze the sea again and the openings shown in the images appeared to have closed.

The observations coincided with growing concern about a possible link between global warming and extreme weather. They followed other signs that the Arctic has been severely affected.

Polar bears have drowned and receding Arctic glaciers have uncovered previously unknown islands in a drastic summer thaw widely blamed on global warming.

The smallest amount of ice recorded in the Arctic annually fell to less than 5.5 million square km (2.1 million sq miles) in 2005 from about 8 million square km (3 million sq miles) in the early 1980s.

Those changes were "widely viewed as a consequence of greenhouse warming", ESA said.

The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) said last week that Arctic sea ice was likely to recede this year close to 2005's low. A stormy August slightly slowed the 2006 melt.

"If this anomaly trend continues, the northeast passage or `northern sea route' between Europe and Asia will be open over longer intervals of time, and it is conceivable we might see attempts at sailing around the world directly across the summer Arctic Ocean within the next 10 to 20 years," Drinkwater said.

Source: Reuters

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