4. Will Arctic Sea ice continue to decline, opening up the fabled Northwest Passage once and for all?
In almost every summer since 2007, the southern route of the Northwest Passage, which connects the northern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, has been nearly ice-free. In 2016, the luxury cruiseliner Crystal Serenity became the largest passenger vessel to ever travel through the route, which was considered nearly impassable just over a century ago.
As Mongabay staff writer John Cannon reported earlier this month, higher-than-normal water and air temperatures coupled with shifts in wind patterns led to record-low sea ice extents in both the Arctic and the Antarctic in November 2016. “It looks like a triple whammy – a warm ocean, a warm atmosphere, and a wind pattern all working against the ice in the Arctic,” said Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado.
Dropping temperatures in the months leading up to winter usually lead to increases in Arctic Sea ice, a process that typically starts in September and peaks in March. But at one point in mid-November, the extent of Arctic sea ice had actually shrunk by about 50,000 square kilometers (19,300 square miles). In some places, air temperatures were 10 degrees Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than the November averages recorded between 1981 and 2010. As a result, Arctic Sea ice extent was just 9.08 million square kilometers (3.51 million square miles), 18 percent lower than the November average. That made November the seventh month of 2016 with record-low levels of Arctic Sea ice.
We won’t really begin to know what 2017 will bring for the Arctic until late March, when the melt season returns. But it doesn’t look good: For the second year in a row, scientists forecasted ice-melting December temperatures for some parts of the Arctic.
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