For those in the business of extreme sailboat racing, it seems climate change isn’t so bad after all.
Rapidly melting sea ice in the Arctic has made it possible for sailors to navigate the Northwest Passage, the famously treacherous sea route through the Arctic Ocean. That’s at least according to a group of people who plan to race yachts through that passage in 2017, part of a 7,700-mile journey from New York to Victoria, British Columbia that organizers say is only made possible by climate change.
“Rapid climate change has hit the Arctic hard,” the website for the Sailing the Arctic Race, or STAR, reads. “For the first time in human history it is possible to sail over the top of North America in a single season.”
The goal of the race is not solely to master a once-impossible sailing feat. According to the organizers, one purpose of the race is to raise awareness of issues facing a melting Arctic. They’re also raising money — according to the STAR website, all teams that wish to race must pay a $50,000 entrance fee, and will need to purchase a specific boat that costs between $800,000 and $1 million.
The organizers also say they’re committed to leaving no impact on the environment from the race, promising to achieve Gold Level sustainability certification under a program called Clean Regattas, run by the conservation organization Sailors for the Sea. According to the website, less than 10 percent of registered regattas are able to achieve the Gold Level under the program, which requires sailors to achieve at least 19 of 25 best practices listed by the organization.
“It is a privilege to be able to sail the oceans of the world and visit remote wildernesses like the Arctic and STAR is working hard to ensure a net zero impact of the race,” the website reads. “We are developing one of the greenest, most environmentally conscious on-the-water events in the world and working hard to spread awareness of marine and Arctic conservation issues.”
The race is still in its planning stages, so it’s too early to say whether it will actually happen. Some have criticized the idea as improbable, and specific scheduling has not been set in stone.
What is indisputable, though, is that Arctic sea ice has been disappearing, making conditions more favorable for this type of activity than ever before in recorded human history. Since scientists began recording Arctic ice extent in 1979, it has declined every year. Since the 70s, the Arctic has warmed by 2°C (3.6°F), with the summer minimum Arctic sea ice extent decreasing by 40 percent during that same time. In addition, the Arctic’s winter maximum sea ice extent was the lowest its ever been in 2015.
In addition to the shrinking of its surface area, Arctic sea ice has also been declining in thickness. According to a February study published in The Cryosphere, annual mean ice thickness has decreased 65 percent from 1975 to 2012.
Scientists predict a melting Arctic will do more than just open up sailing passages. In addition to contributing to sea level rise, a melting Arctic actually worsens global warming, because bright white sea ice usually reflects sunlight, and therefore warmth. When that ice melts, it’s replaced with dark ocean, which absorbs sunlight and heat.