Polar Prince

The Untameable Northwest Passage

Climate Change Impact in the Arctic

The Chinese symbol/character for danger is a combination of the symbols for Crisis and Opportunity. The melting of the glaciers in the Arctic brought about by global warming, due to Climate Change, presents both opportunities and conflicts – wealth and wrath.

The accelerated warming and melting of Arctic ice, whose ice cover has declined by 12 percent, in the past decade according to the Norwegian Center for Ice, Climate and Ecosystems, is now opening up sea routes that were impassable or terribly difficult to navigate in the past. The most monitored perhaps is the Arctic's Northwest Passages. The research is conducted by organised on-location teams of scientists and climatologists, and even online universities teaching similar topics as climate change becomes an increasingly discussed area of science in the new millennium.

What Is the Northwest Passage?

Virtually impassable in the past because of its thick sea ice cover all year round, the Northwest Passage is a sea route along the northern coast of North America that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. The various islands of the archipelago are separated from one another and the Canadian mainland by a series of Arctic waterways are collectively known as the Northwest Passages or Northwestern Passages.

Getting There

Ships traveling west would enter the Passage through Baffin Bay, pass through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago by various routes, exit into the Beaufort Sea and then out into the Pacific Ocean through the Chukchi Sea and Bering Sea.

Melting Arctic Bares Opportunities

Computer-aided climate models, along with recent satellite and other monitoring instruments, confirm that the Arctic sea ice is declining in both thickness and extent, opening vast navigation opportunities.

The resulting shorter distance of ship routes (decrease of 4000 kilometers or 2500 miles) from Europe to Asia is just one of the significant potential benefits of a clear Northwest Passage. This means that the vast mineral resources of the Canadian North will be much easier and economical to develop and transport to the rest of the world, especially in Asia, as it would also be true for goods coming from Asia and going for Europe.

Satellite images taken near the end of the Arctic summer during the past few years often show large portions of the Passage are relatively ice free. In one instance, satellite images even showed that the Arctic Ocean was clear enough to sail directly to the North Pole from northern Europe.

Previously frozen areas in the Arctic may therefore become seasonally or permanently navigable, increasing the prospects for marine transport through the Arctic and providing greater access to Arctic resources such as fish, oil and gas. Not to mention its effect on tourism that may have guests staying longer because of the “warmer” temperature.

Early History

Even before the melting of the Arctic sea ice, the short route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans was already considered as economically valuable early on.

The earliest recorded search to find this passage was in 1497. Spain's King Henry VII sent an Italian navigator by the name of Giovanni Caboto to search for a direct route to the Eastern world. The farthest Caboto sailed was in present-day New Foundland. This failed attempt was followed by other expeditions, mostly by the British. English explorers, including Martin Frobisher, John Davis and Henry Hudson searched for the passage from the Atlantic side in the late 1500's and early 1600's. These expeditions however, also resulted to failures.

A British Royal Navy officer by the name of John Franklin, set off for the Arctic in 1845. Franklin once again. Franklin was in charge of two ships, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, with 134 men. Franklin became one of the most famous Arctic explorers, although not for his success but much for his failure. Franklin and his men never found the passage, but became the reason for several attempts to find the passage - and find the rest of them in the process.

Another significant milestone was in 1849, when an English by the name of Robert McClure, passed through the Bering Strait with the intent of sailing through to the Atlantic. He and his crew became the first to survice a trip through the Northwest Passage after getting trapped in the ice not far from making it to Viscount Melville Sound and probable passage to the Atlantic. They were rescued by sledge party from one of Sir Edward Belcher's ships and transported by sledge to the Sound. McClure and crew spent three winters on the ice, dying of starvation.

Then in 1906, Roald Amundsen and his crew were the first to cross the Northeast Passage entirely by sea in 1906. Amundsen’s route through the Northwest Passage was via the Baffin Bay, Lancaster and Peel Sounds, and James Ross, Simpson and Rae Straits. This is now the route that most expeditions take.

The Norwegian explorer's expedition took three years and sailed on waters that were considered too shallow for commercial shipping. So was the expedition by Henry Larsen in 1944, whose taken route was also considered not deep enough for commercial shipping.

Commercially funded expeditions decreased because of the seeming unviability of the passage.

Modern Day Expeditions

A breakthrough came in 1957, when three United States Coast Guard Cutters, Storis, Bramble and SPAR became the first ships to cross the Northwest Passage along a deep draft route. They covered the 4,500 miles of semi-charted water in 64 days.

Another “first” was also achieved by another ship that traversed the Passage. The SS Manhattan, a specially reinforced supertanker, became the the first ship capable of carrying significant cargo to sailing through the Passage in 1969. It was accompanied by a Canadian icebreaker - the John A Macdonald.

Arctic Wealth

The Arctic's long hidden wealth, now slowly getting exposed because of the planet's rising temperature, is making countries run on their heels to put a stamp on portions of it, if not the entire loot.

An estimate by the U.S. Geological Survey indicates that the offshore Arctic contains over 400 billion barrels of of previously inaccessible oil and natural gas equivalent, which is worth $90 billion (£56 billion) lying beneath ice layers in the Arctic Circle.

As the melting sea ice open new lanes, billions of dollars in transportation costs could be saved each year, in terms of time and energy resource use because of the Passage's shorter route from the West to the East and back.

If the Northwest Passage becomes a viable shipping route, Canada stands to gain the most from it, as it will facilitate the country's development of its northern lands and provide an important economic and military possession if their claim to control is upheld.

The increase in Arctic sea traffic would translate to an increased need for more military patrols and monitoring.

Potential for Conflict

On the basis that all routes through the Northwest Passage pass between the islands of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, Canada claims the route as "Canadian Internal Waters". The United States, Russia, Denmark and Norway, of course, are also claiming otherwise. In fact, the U.S. military has sent ships and submarines through the Passage without notification to Canada based upon the philosophy that the Passage is an International Water. Ottawa is apparently already budgeting for drone aircraft earmarked for Arctic surveillance, as Canada stresses that it plans to take a tough stand on its Arctic sovereignty.

Russia is also making it clear that it considers most of the Arctic’s unexplored areas its backyard, all the way to the North Pole itself, and will aggressively pursue its interests in the region. Norway and Russia are already arguing over borders in the area.

©2017 - Polar Prince

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