A massive drop in Arctic sea ice during this year's northern summer has opened up the Northwest Passage — a sea route that passes between the frozen Arctic region and northern Canada that could provide a quicker shipping route between Europe and Asia than previously allowed by either the Suez Canal or the Panama Canal — for the first time since satellite recordings began in 1978.
Over the last decade the average decline in sea ice has been about 100,000 square kilometres, however this year the ice has retreated by 1 million square kilometres, taking the record minimum sea ice from 4 million square kilometres in 2005-06 to 3 million square kilometres.
The September 17 National Geographic quoted Leif Toudal Pederson of the Danish National Space Centre who characterised the decrease as "extreme". The melting is about 30 years ahead of what is predicted by the UN Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change's Fourth Assessment report.
A study released on September 7 by the US Geological Survey estimated that the melting of Arctic sea ice could kill off two-thirds of the world's polar bears in the next 50 years, with the current population estimated at 24,500. The US Fish and Wildlife Service, which commissioned the study, has already registered drops in the numbers of polar bears and is expected to make a decision about classifying the species as endangered by January.
Instead of resulting in urgent action to halt global warming, the opening of the passage has sparked off a dispute about access rights. Canada claims that the area falls within its sovereignty, while the US and EU have argued the route should be designated as international waters.
The opening up of the Northwest Passage has also sparked a rush to assert rights over territorial waters, which could allow for a massive expansion of fishing, and the underlying seafloor, which is speculated to hold oil and gas resources. A number of nations, including the US, Canada, Russia, Denmark and Norway, are vying to stake their claims.