ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Global warming has melted so much Arctic ice that a telecommunication group is moving forward with a project that was unthinkable just a few years ago: laying underwater fiber optic cable between Tokyo and London by way of the Northwest Passage.
The proposed system would nearly cut in half the time it takes to send messages from the United Kingdom to Asia, said Walt Ebell, CEO of Kodiak-Kenai Cable Co. The route is the shortest underwater path between Tokyo and London.
The quicker transmission time is important in the financial world where milliseconds can count in executing profitable trades and transactions. "Speed is the crux," Ebell said. "You're cutting the delay from 140 milliseconds to 88 milliseconds."
The project, while still facing many significant obstacles, also serves as an example of how warming has altered the Arctic landscape in profound ways.
Summer sea ice melted to its lowest recorded level ever in late 2007, and most climate modelers predict a continued downward spiral. The result is a path through the Northwest Passage, the Arctic route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific that has fascinated explorers for centuries.
"That opens up the construction window to actually do something like this without the need of heavy icebreakers," Ebell said. "On the other side, you've got the market part of it and the increasing demand we're seeing for lower and lower latencies, or transmission times."
But the project, called ArcticLink, is not without hurdles — namely the estimated construction price of $1.2 billion, said Alan Mauldin, research director at TeleGeography Research, a Washington, D.C.-based telecommunications market research company.