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Scientists came to explore the fabled waters of the Arctic — but their work could also change its future. – Washington Post

Scientists came to explore the fabled waters of the Arctic — but their work could also change its future.

The football field-size CCGS Amundsen, breaking through the icy waters of the Northwest Passage, came to a halt. Traversing one of the most unexplored regions of Earth’s oceans, the Canadian coast guard vessel found itself amid ice 10 feet thick. It reversed course, turned 30 degrees, and proceeded forward again, trembling along the way.

This icebreaker’s objective was to carry scientists into little-charted seas high in the Canadian Arctic. There they planned to map regions of the seafloor at high resolution and pull up a sample that could reveal what happened here at the close of the last ice age, 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.

But the dilemma the scientists on this vessel faced had less to do with ancient history than the near future. By helping to map a region that’s only now becoming navigable, thanks to climate change, they’re part of a broader opening of one of Earth’s most untouched environments to a growing volume of ship traffic.

It is perhaps the central irony of their mission: While they were conducting research that could help shed light on current environmental challenges, the resulting maps could also help open the door to more tourism, shipping and other forms of commerce that could damage some of the globe’s most pristine waters.

“We as scientists can get into areas we’ve never been before,” said Mark Furze, a geoscientist at MacEwan University in Alberta who was traveling aboard the CCGS Amundsen for the research. “It comes with a cost.”

For half a millennium, explorers have tried to find passages through the Canadian Arctic islands that connect the Atlantic and Pacific. But only in recent years, as climate change has driven back the ice, have a growing number of ships started making the crossing regularly, with a record of 33 full Northwest Passage transits in 2017, as well as many shorter sea excursions. These include not just scientists and adventurers but also government vessels assessing a new area of strategic importance and, increasingly, for-profit entities.

Scientists have long conceded that climate change has benefits along with its costs, and from an economic perspective, the opening of the Northwest Passage could be construed as one of those benefits. For countries with vast northern regions, most prominently Russia and Canada, the thawing of the Arctic creates new opportunities to exploit a wealth of natural resources and to host new activities, such as tourism and shipping.

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Sorgente: Scientists came to explore the fabled waters of the Arctic — but their work could also change its future. – Washington Post

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