It now appears that both the Northwest (along the Canadian coast) and Northeast (along the Russian coast) passages are clear of arctic ice.
The latest imagery from the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) shows that the Northwest passage has opened again as it did for the first time in recorded history in 2007. The Northeastern passage had formed several weeks earlier. An adventurous sailor could circumnavigate the North Pole but would have to take a minor detour around Greenland.
The orange lines are the median ice extent for the years between 1979 and 2000. You can these as what we used to consider normal in the very recent past. Recent being the Clinton administration.
2011 is trending right along with 2007 to be a record low-ice year. For those of you who may be a bit rusty on "standard deviations", the gray area in this image represents what we believe is the expected behavior of the north pole about 95% of the time during those 1997-2000 years. Recent years are clearly off on a very different behavior. We'll know in a couple of weeks whether we see a new record low ice extent.
Ya know how a sidewalk can feel relatively cool compared to the asphalt next to it when you are barefoot? Think about what that means for the earth to lose its great big white reflector. Actually, best not to think about that...