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 November 03, 2016
The disturbing climate implications of this sailboat's Arctic voyage.

 On August 14, the 48-foot sailing vessel Northabout was in a sheltered location north of Siberia, battling hurricane-force winds. Held in place by 100 feet of chain tied to an anchor, the crew hunkered down as the storm built through the late summer Arctic night.

At times, the anchor dragged across the bottom of the shallow sea, making a terrible grinding noise.

The seven-person-crew of the ship thought they might have to beach the vessel and brave the elements.

"I've not been that scared for many a year," said expedition leader David Hempleman-Adams, in an interview.

"... We were in shallow waters, and the anchor was dragging," wrote 14-year-old crew member Ben Edwards in an as-yet unpublished ship's diary entry provided to Mashable.

"Before we went into the saloon we had to get into our abandonment suits. Basically massive really thick wetsuits. They protect you somewhat if you end up in the sea. We looked like Telly Tubbies," Edwards wrote.

"I don't mind telling you that I thought we were all going to die," he added.

In trying to sail through both the Northeast and Northwest Passages in the same year --- a feat that would have been impossible as recently as 2007 --- Hempleman-Adams, Edwards and the rest of the Northabout's crew ran smack into the capricious face of the new Arctic reality.

Sea ice is rapidly thinning and melting as the world warms, hitting the second-lowest level on record this year. At the same time, weather patterns in the Far North seem to be growing weirder and more menacing.

For example, the storm that hit the ship this summer was more typical of the intense tempests that sweep across the region during the winter.

The storm was one of several major low pressure areas that transported unusually mild air into the Arctic this summer, helping to shift and melt sea ice and vault temperatures above freezing in many areas.

The Northabout crew, for example, recorded a high temperature during that storm of 17 degrees Celsius, or 63 degrees Fahrenheit.

Hempleman-Adams, a veteran Arctic explorer, says he never experienced such warmth in the Far North before, and he was shocked at the lack of sea ice he saw during the journey.

Since the boat did not have protection against thick sea ice, potentially becoming stuck whenever it encountered ice floes of about 10 feet in thickness, its successful Arctic circumnavigation was only possible due to the rapidly warming world.

The Arctic is warming at double the rate of lower latitudes, which is having widespread consequences, from sea ice loss and melting of the Greenland ice sheet to earlier spring snow melt.

Hempleman-Adams put the expedition together as a way to raise awareness about global warming. But even he didn't anticipate how little ice he and his crew members would encounter during much of their voyage.

During the Northabout's two-week transit of the famed Northwest Passage, for example, he said there was a near complete absence of sea ice.

The passage was blocked with ice throughout all of human history until sea ice loss from global warming opened it briefly during the summer of 2007. It has been seasonally open during several summers since, including 2016. This year, in addition to the Northabout, a cruise ship carrying more than 1,000 people also sailed through the passage.

"We went through the Northwest Passage in 14 days and didn't see one drop of ice, not even enough ice for a gin and tonic," Hempleman-Adams said.

He compared a previous group's voyage using the same boat just 11 years ago. That team, led by Irishman Jarlath Cunnane, took three years to complete both the Northeast and Northwest Passage, largely because they kept getting held up by thick ice floes.

"Whereas when you see the photographs of their trip and how they were in the same boat and the conditions they had with the ice, and what we had, they are massive contrasts..." Hempleman-Adams said. "They had ice where we had just open water."

Other than an iceberg or two in Lancaster Sound, Hempleman-Adams said the crew didn't encounter any sea ice in the traditional choke points of the Northwest Passage, which is actually a series of twists and turns between islands and straits through the Canadian Arctic.

The voyage, which covered a total of about 15,500 miles in 20 weeks, was aimed at raising awareness of climate change. Hempleman-Adams saw Edwards, the youngest crew member, as a sort of youth ambassador on global warming.

"I felt my generation has helped fuck up the world, but I wanted to make the younger generation more aware of their environment," he told Mashable.

Hempleman-Adams, who is the retired chairman of Global Resins, a UK-based epoxy and polyurethane resin systems company, plans to sail the Northabout to Greenland this summer with a crew of young people from inner cities.