for National Geographic News
The famed Northwest Passage—a direct shipping route from Europe to Asia across the Arctic Ocean—is ice free for the first time since satellite records began in 1978, scientists reported Friday.
The passage is a shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Canadian Arctic. It would save valuable time and fuel for ships that now travel through the Suez Canal in Egypt or the Panama Canal in Central America.
Climate models had projected the passage would eventually open as warming temperatures melted the Arctic sea ice—but no one had predicted it would happen this soon.
"We're probably 30 years ahead of schedule in terms of the loss of the Arctic sea ice," said Mark Serreze, a senior scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder, Colorado.
"We're on this fast track of change."
That rapid melting is ratcheting up international competition for control over the newly accessible shipping lanes and exposed natural resources.
Canada, for example, claims it has full rights over the parts of the passage that pass its territory. The U.S. and European Union say the passage is in international waters.
Meanwhile Russia laid claim to the sea floor at the North Pole this August, planting a flag there in the hopes of securing the Arctic's potential bonanza of oil and minerals.
The opening of the Northwest Passage is clearly shown in a mosaic of 200 satellite images from the European Space Agency (ESA).
The snapshots also reveal that the Northeast Passage—a similar route that winds along Siberia's coast instead of Canada's—is nearly clear.
Those passages have been traversed in the past—with difficulty—including in recent years as ice cover thinned.
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