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October 3, 2010

Arctic transformed at hands of climate change

On 19 May 1845, Sir John Franklin set sail from the Thames River, England searching for the famed, long sought Northwest Passage: a northern sea route across the Canadian Arctic from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This passage had been a quest by explorers for centuries as a shorter route to the orient.

There were 129 men in his two ships, the Erebus and the Terror. In addition to the necessary provisions for up to a three year voyage, the ships carried all of the silverware, china and crystal that the officers of the Royal Navy were accustomed to. They were last glimpsed by some whalers near Greenland on June 25, 1845, and then they disappeared.

Captain Franklin was an experienced Arctic explorer. He was even called 'the man who ate his boots' by the Inuit, because of a mishap on one of his earlier explorations where he nearly starved to death, but his courage and experience was extensive.

Historians today believe that at some point his ships became frozen in the ice, and not released by the summers thaw: the ships were eventually lost and have never been recovered. Over a 12 year period over 50 expeditions searched for him. Only the remains of a few of the officers and men have been found scattered around the Arctic that tell of horrible hardship. (The Arctic Grail, by Pierre Berton).

The Arctic Today

The Arctic of today is a very different place. On a visit to Beechey Island one can still see the barrel staves and opened tin cans from what is believed to be their first original campsite. A chill, but not cold wind blows, but no ice is in sight on this August day. No green is visible either, even if one gets down on all fours and looks across hundreds of feet of the stone shingle terrain.

The recent satellite composite image here )8/24/2010) tells the story of the Arctic today. The Arctic, we recall, is an ocean surrounded by land. This is the exact opposite to the Antarctic where we have a continent surrounded by ocean. This image from the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), and carried on "The University of Illinois Cryosphere Today" website, has the North Pole in the center as a dark circular dot. It is surrounded by varying shades of color (gray here) which denotes ice thickness (see intensity stripe across bottom).

The image, with Canada to the left, Alaska to the upper left and Russia from top to most of the way down on the right ending with the Scandinavian countries: Greenland is the large white mass on the bottom left. The legendary Northwest Passage across the Canadian Arctic is completely clear, as is the Northeast Passage along Russia's land boundary as can be seen.

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