Space Radar Helps Shipping Dodge Arctic Icebergs


The data mosaic shows sea-ice coverage of mid-August 2008, revealing an almost ice-free Northwest Passage. The direct route through the Northwest Passage is highlighted by an orange line. The orange dotted line shows the indirect route, called the Amundsen Northwest Passage.

Image courtesy ESA

Radar data gathered by the European Space Agency’s satellites in 2007 showed that the Arctic area covered by sea ice had shrunk to its lowest level since satellites began monitoring the area nearly 30 years ago.

“Data gathered this year revealed that the Northern Sea Route, also known as the Northeast Passage, and the Northwest Passage were both open simultaneously for the first time since satellite measurements began,” the ESA said today. 

The agency is using the radar technology, which can monitor ice continuously through clouds and darkness, conditions often found in the region, to help ships navigate safely through the increasingly accessible Arctic.

Arctic-1.jpgESA’s Envisat ASAR data mosaic showing sea-ice coverage as of mid-August 2008. The red line indicates the all-time minimum Arctic sea-ice coverage in September 2007.

Image courtesy ESA

“The Arctic is undergoing rapid transformation due to climate change, pollution and human activity,” the ESA said in a statement.

“ESA’s ERS and Envisat satellites have been providing satellite data of the region for the last 17 years. These long term data sets in combination with ESA’s future missions will be key in implementing the newly adopted European Commission policy called ‘The European Union and the Arctic Region.'”

The policy highlights new opportunities in the region such as the opening up of long-sought transportation routes due to receding ice. However, it focuses on the need to carry out these activities in a sustainable manner, the agency said.

“The Arctic is experiencing an increase in shipping, primarily for oil and gas development and tourism, with further increases expected due to diminishing ice extent.”

Arctic-3.jpg“The ice loss leads to an increasing number of icebergs in the area. Safe and efficient navigation through these ice-infested waters requires accurate, up-to-date sea ice information. Iceberg detection services are currently being provided by national ice centres, mainly using European and Canadian radar sensors.”

The Polar View initiative, established by European and Canadian organizations under the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) program, cooperates with European Ice Services to improve ice monitoring and forecasting.

Ulf Gullne, a Polar View user responsible for ice-breaking services in Sweden, said: “It is vital for the safety of winter navigation to know where the ice is and where it is going to be. The use of satellite images has also reduced our ice-breakers’ fuel consumption by half.”

Iceberg photo courtesy ESA

Related National Geographic News stories:

Arctic Ice in “Death Spiral,” Is Near Record Low

Arctic August Ice Retreat Fastest On Record

Shrinking Arctic Sea Ice Thinner, More Vulnerable

Vanishing Arctic Ice May Hurt Japan’s Wildlife, Tourism

North Pole May Be Ice-Free for First Time This Summer

Earlier NatGeo News Watch Entry:

Arctic Sea Ice Likely at Lowest Volume on Record, Researchers Say

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