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WWF recently supported two expeditions that took on some of the world’s most difficult waters, to see first-hand the effects of arctic climate change.

One expedition sailed across the top of Russia, a journey of 6000 nautical miles through the Northeast Passage, while another made a west to east transit of the Northwest Passage, also by sailing boat, a journey of about 7,000 nautical miles.

Tom Arnbom of Sweden was on the ‘Explorer of Sweden’ though the Northeast Passage, as was WWF Arctic Programme Director Neil Hamilton for much of the trip, replaced near the end by WWF polar bear coordinator Geoff York. On the ‘Silent Sound’ Cameron Dueck of the Open Passage Expedition was filing regular stories from the Northwest Passage.

North East Passage expedition

Map of the Northeast passage expedition route, 2009 rel= © Skinnarmo

Swedish polar explorer Ola Skinnarmo and WWF recently sailed through the North East Passage, to document and highlight the incredible pace of change in the region.

It is now 130 years since the famous Swedish/Finnish explorer Nordenskiöld finished his voyage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean through the North East Passage, the ice-fringed thread of water through the Russian Arctic.

At that time his ship, the Vega, was stuck in the ice for 10 months.

Due to climate change, it is now possible to challenge the passage by sailboat, and without the support of an icebreaker.
Latest news from the Northeast Passage

Opportunities for the Arctic

Senior officer for polar bear conservation at WWF, Geoff York, has been one of the crew of the Explorer of Sweden though the Northeast Passage. In his last post from the expedition, he describes how we have a chance - fleeting and perhaps elusive, but a chance - to save the Arctic and conserve what is best in this still remote and mystical region of our planet.

>> Read more

Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon in the Arctic 
© WWF / Flickr user orvaratli, under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works licence.
Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon in the Arctic
© WWF / Flickr user orvaratli, under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works licence.
Follow the Explorer's progress via our interactive Twitter map!
WWF Arctic Programme director, Dr Neil Hamilton, tweeted his way through part of the expedition as well as filing regular blog posts, photos and video.

WWF involvement

  • WWF supported the expedition to document the state of the environment and highlight impacts of climate change on the arctic ecosystems, and the resultant need for urgent action.
  • In addition, the material was used during COP15 in Copenhagen in December where WWF reserved a prominent square in the city centre

What did they discover?

The Arctic is melting fast. A new study shows that from 2005-2008, temperatures in the central Arctic were 5 °C above the level anticipated.

The summer sea ice extent has decreased by 40% since the 70s. Significant permafrost melting has already taken place.

These changes are driven by greenhouse gas emissions. The models vary, but many experts now suggest the summer ice in the Arctic will be completely gone within a generation.

Ecosystem survival

Scientists forecast that the Arctic will warm by 2-4°C over the next 40 years. This is a very large and rapid change for a region where species have evolved to be well adapted to cold, snow and ice.

Taking the sea ice away from the Arctic could therefore cause hardship all the way through the arctic food web, destabilizing a system that is already fragile due to the comparatively low number of species. The expedition is expecting to see and document evidence of the effects of decreasing ice.

The expedition also had the opportunity to visit several of WWF’s ‘Polar Bear Patrols’ along the coast.

The expedition

The vessel is called Explorer of Sweden and is a 62 foot sailboat that has been reinforced to handle the icy conditions. It has a satellite connection with phone, and is run by solar panels and wind power.

The expedition was carbon neutral. 

Stops on the way

Places that are visited during the expedition

  • Dickson: named by Nordenskiöld
  • Cape Chelyuskin: the most northern point of the old world
  • Wrangel Island: famous for all its polar bears
  • The Chukchi Peninsula: where WWF-Russia works with its polar bear patrols
  • Pitlekaj: Where Nordenskiöld spent the winter
  • Providenyia: The goal of the expedition

North West Passage expedition

View from the crow's nest as the Silent Sound navigates the Northwest Passage rel= © WWF

Around the same time as the Northeast Passage trip, the Open Passage Expedition sailed through the Northwest Passage to research the impact of climate change on arctic communities.

The expedition’s goal was to tell the story of how climate change was affecting people in the Arctic in a creative and compelling way.

Latest news from the Northwest Passage

A successful mission

The front yard of the average Inuit home will contain several snowmobiles, some of them working, some of them being repaired, some in a state of despair. There will also be a few quad bikes, and, if the resident works for the government or one of the town’s big companies, they will have a late model truck or SUV parked in the driveway, writes Cameron Dueck. | No more warm and fuzzy ideals | Sea ice report | Homeward bound through the icebergs | Mirages | Seal hearts and other parts | Halfway home  | Herschel Island | Update from Barrow, Alaska | Update from Wales, Alaska

>> Read more


We need a new climate deal in Copenhagen, December 2009
© We need a new climate deal in Copenhagen, December 2009 © WWF