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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Melting Ice Opening Up Northwest Passage

PARIS -- Arctic ice has shrunk to the lowest level on record, new satellite images show, raising the possibility that the Northwest Passage that eluded famous explorers will become an open shipping lane.

The European Space Agency said nearly 200 satellite photos taken this month showed an ice-free passage along northern Canada, Alaska and Greenland and ice retreating to its lowest level since such images were first taken in 1978.

The waters are exposing unexplored resources, and vessels could trim thousands of kilometers off the sea journey from Europe to Asia by bypassing the Panama Canal. The seasonal ebb and flow of ice levels has already opened up a slim summer window in which some ships can pass through.

Leif Toudal Pedersen of the Danish National Space Center said Arctic ice had shrunk to some 3 million square kilometers, down from 4 million square kilometers in 2005.

"The strong reduction in just one year certainly raises flags that the ice [in summer] may disappear much sooner than expected," Pedersen said in an ESA statement posted on its web site Friday.

On average, the ice retreated by about 100,000 square kilometers per year over the last decade, "so a drop of 1 million square kilometers in just one year is extreme," Pedersen said.

Pedersen said the extreme retreat this year suggested that the passage could fully open sooner than expected -- but ESA did not say when that might be. Efforts to contact ESA officials in Paris and Noordwik, Netherlands, were unsuccessful Saturday.

A United Nations panel on climate change has predicted that polar regions could be virtually free of ice by the summer of 2070 because of rising temperatures and sea ice decline, ESA noted.