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Shipping shortcut.

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Meltdown: A trip from Europe to Asia through the Northwest Passage would be 7,408 km (4,000 nautical mi) shorter than one through the Panama Canal.

For centuries, explorers sought the Northwest Passage as a shortcut for trade passing between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Most expeditions were thwarted by impassable ice covering the Arctic Ocean. That is until last September, when the once-fabled Passage was ice-free for the first time in recent history.

Each summer, sea ice in the Arctic melts to its annual minimum. This year it hit a record low of 4.28 million square kilometers (1.65 million square miles)--having lost 10 times more ice than the average yearly amount for the past 10 years and clearing the Northwest Passage. "The extra melted area was three times the size of Texas," says Peter Winsor, a researcher at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

Some scientists think this summer's big thaw was a result of global warming, an average increase in Earth's temperature. Arctic ice has been shrinking steadily over the years, If climate change continues, scientists say it's likely the Northwest Passage will re-open in future years.

Amount of Arctic ice in September

Measurements of summer ice in the Arctic Ocean vary from year to year. But the trend has been toward a steadily shrinking polar ice cap. Last September, this ice melted to an extreme low. Which year had the second lowest amount of Arctic sea ice?

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Title Annotation:GRAPH IT/OCEANS
Author:Montgomery, Heather
Publication:Science World
Date:Jan 14, 2008
Words:246
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