Doug O’Harra reports in the Anchorage Daily News that the polar ice cap has been shrinking so fast due to global warming that ships may be sailing through the Northwest Passage each summer by 2015, according to a U.S. Navy report. Commercial ships have wanted to use the Northwest Passage for hundreds of years, ever since the area was first explored, but this will be the first time they will actually be able to do so.

Global warming will open the Arctic Ocean to higher levels commercial activity. The seasonal expansion of open water may draw commercial fishing fleets into the waters north of Alaska within a few decades. The summer ice cover could even disappear entirely by 2050.

The U.S. Navy does not yet have the ships, training, or technology in place to patrol a wide-open polar sea, but the new report says they?d better start getting ready. Dennis Conlon, program manager of high latitude dynamics at the Office of Naval Research, says the ice covering that now hides U.S. submarines will disappear, while opening the surface to marine operations by rival navies, criminals or even terrorists.

The most critical needs for the Navy include increasing the bandwidth of radio communications and navigational aids over the Arctic. They also need to increase their search-and-rescue abilities and redesign equipment for operations in a new ocean that features icing, fog, poor visibility, bad weather and intermittent ice.

The new sea routes will reduce shipping times between Europe and Asia, but the area is now claimed as national waters by Russia and Canada, so international disputes may be on the way. Alaska environmental groups were concerned last year over a Russian proposal to use ice breakers in the area to help transport spent nuclear fuel back and forth between Europe and Japan.

Submarine data has found a 40 percent decrease in the volume of the Arctic ice. Since the 1970s, the ice cover extent has been shrinking about 3 percent per decade, bringing more precipitation and worsening weather to the north of Alaska. And weather changes may be speeding up, according to Conlon. Last year, the Bering Sea remained ice-free for the first time on record. Satellite imagery found that a regular commercial ship could have traveled last summer from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean above Canada. ?It looks like the Northwest Passage was open for about 10 days to two weeks,” Conlon says. “That surprised me and a few of my Arctic colleagues.”

To learn more about the history of the Northwest Passage, click here.

To learn more about global warming, read “The Coming Global Superstorm” by Art Bell & Whitley Strieber,click here. Now only $9.95 for a signed hardcover!

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