Back in the late 1700s. Captain James Cook sailed to the Arctic in an effort to find a trade route between Europe and Asia. Cook didn't succeed, but more recently, climate change and the deterioration of the polar icecap have raised hopes that a Northwest Passage might emerge as a quicker path for ships than going through the Panama or Suez canals.
But a newly published article in the journal Geophysical Research Letters indicates that even though the Arctic is melting, sea ice in the Northwest Passage still remains too thick and too dangerous for it to become a regular commercial Arctic shipping route, at least not for decades.
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In the study, Christian Haas, a geophysics professor at Canada's York University, and colleagues measured first-year and multi-year ice thickness in the Canadian Arctic, using an airplane equipped with an electromagnetic induction sounder. 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 researchers found that the ice was around 6 1/2 feet thick in many parts of the Northwest Passage, and in some areas, the ice was as much as 13 feet 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," Haas said in a press release.
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"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."
Paradoxically, as climate change melts the Arctic ice sheet, it actually could make the Northwest Passage more difficult to navigate, because loose pieces of ice might drift into the route.