Safe navigation in the Arctic is getting a higher profile as commercial activities take advantage of ever later freezing seas and the loss of the all-year-round ice pack. Accurate predictions of ice extent are important to navigators in the region and new research by scientists from Reading University may accurately foretell September sea-ice minimum by examining melt-ponds which develop the previous spring.
Melt-ponds develop on sea ice during spring and summer. They are less reflective than the surrounding ice so absorb more of the sun’s heat and encourage ice to melt.
Over the past 30 years sea ice in the Arctic has frozen later and later but while ice extent is shrinking it has proved difficult to estimate individual year extents.
Over the past four years annual Polar transits have increased from a mere four to more than 60, says the Swedish Club, and there is no sign it will slacken off. While the shipping industry is taking climate change in its stride even minor incidents while have potentially major impacts, both on the environment and politically, yet there is no internationally agreed polar code, or regime, for ice navigation.
Ice navigation requires a very special skills set to avoid accidents and help and incident mitigation will be difficult given polar conditions. Navigation equipment such as compasses and charts can be unreliable at these latitudes and radar returns may be misleading – aircraft have crashed when relying on radar to determine height, for instance. Yet as longer ice-free summers and increased offshore operations focus attention on the polar regions, transits to and from the Arctic ports are set to increase significantly.