At the top of the world, a great wheel is spinning. Circling the Arctic Ocean, a current called the Beaufort Gyre drives pack ice clockwise around the pole. It pulls warm Pacific currents through the Bering Strait north and west above Siberia, pushes into the East Siberian Sea and the Transpolar Drift, then rolls away from Russia and whips south against Greenland and the archipelagic frontier forming the rocky distant rim of the Canadian Shield. As winter descends and the seas freeze, the gyre drives newly formed ice against the landfast floe edging those northmost coasts, thickening the ice in ridges and layers, and bit by bit forces drift ice into the straits that form the Northwest Passage. As winter thaws to summer, the pack ice breaks up into the Chukchi Sea, where warm Pacific waters join the gyre as it turns again in its grinding cycle.
The pack ice that the gyre drives around the top of the world breathes with the seasons, expanding in winter, contracting in summer. Over the past 30 years, though, the total amount has shrunk: Minimum summer sea-ice area has decreased by more than half, as has estimated summer sea-ice thickness. Even more alarming, total summer sea-ice volume is less than a quarter of what it was a generation ago. Think of how an ice cube melts in three dimensions. Scientists at the Polar Science Center and the National Snow and Ice Data Center expect summer sea ice to disappear entirely as early as 2030. Some people are calling this dramatic decline the “Arctic death spiral.” It will mean the end of the Arctic as we know it.
The Beaufort Gyre is just one wheel in a vast convolution of interconnected wheels that make up the global climate system: the El Niño Southern Oscillation, the Gulf Stream, the carbon cycle, and many, many more. As one wheel speeds up, slows down, warms, disappears, it affects all the others, feeding back into the system. The Arctic death spiral will work like that: As white ice melts into dark water, it will diminish the Earth’s ability to reflect light and heat back into space, thus increasing overall warming. Carbon and methane frozen in Arctic permafrost will thaw and flow into the atmosphere, intensifying greenhouse-gas effects and increasing overall warming. Deep-ocean circulation, which depends on differences in temperature and salinity to move water around the world, will slow and shut down, radically changing regional climates, contributing to sea-level rise, and increasing overall warming.
To see the Arctic death spiral firsthand, and to see the Arctic before it melted, I took a 17-day “adventure cruise” with the outdoor expedition company Adventure Canada: “Into the Northwest Passage 2015.”
* * *
“On my first trip, when I was 14, we were cruising in a little fjord just south of Kangerlussuaq. We came right up to the foot of a glacier, and we were Zodiacking there and it was amazing and everything was wonderful. Then I went back to that exact same glacier in 2007, and there was nothing but rocks.”
—Cedar Swan, Adventure Canada CEO
Our journey began in the alpine room of the Sheraton Gateway Hotel Toronto. Enthusiastic Adventure Canada staff in migraine-blue shirts with polar-bear logos went over the basic outlines of our cruise. A total of 191 fellow “adventurers” listened politely, a crowd of mostly white, mostly silver-haired retired couples in various stages of physical decline, with a few singletons and only a smattering of younger blood—I counted a half-dozen under 50, including myself. The plan was to sail north up the west coast of Greenland, go west into Canada through Lancaster Sound, then sail north around Victoria Island and down through the Prince of Wales Strait to Kugluktuk. Along the way, we’d clamber into black-hulled Zodiac boats for a series of landings and excursions. It was hammered home to us that this wasn’t just a cruise but an “expedition,” and that we had to be ready for anything: Our final route would depend on the sea ice.