As most of you know, the Northwest Passage has been in the sights of explorers and traders for literally centuries. The dream has always been to find a shorter route from Europe to Asia than going all the way around Africa or all the way around South America. Even today, with the Suez Canal (ouch) and the Panama Canal cutting off thousands of miles, being able to take cargo ships and freighters between Asian and European markets over a northern route would save considerable time and money if only it were a real possibility.
Thanks to man-made climate change, the loss of permanent sea ice is having a devastating impact on the people and animals that have lived in the Arctic for millennia. Absolutely devastating. But, those same people whose zest for commercial enterprises helped bring us global warming are increasingly seeing that the dream of a navigable Northwest Passage is coming back to life with a vengeance. The big question is whether you see this as a silver lining to the climate crisis or a future nail in the coffin for our planet. Personally, the ramifications for opening up the Arctic sea routes to heavier traffic – and pollution – scare me to death and depress me like hell, but that’s just me.
While looking at these maps of the exploration of the Northwest Passage through history, keep in mind that for most of the year, the parts that look like water in the maps is mostly ice. This first map shows how many tried, over how many centuries (1587-1941). [Click on any map to zoom in on more details.]
This next map provides a clearer description of a representative sampling of explorers’ routes.
This next map, of Amundsen’s The Maud, shows what these voyages were really like: getting marooned in ice jams, not enough food, perishingly cold, and crews dying.
And to make the reality even clearer, this is a drawing of the HMS Investigator – dispatched on the search for the doomed Franklin Expedition. As happened to so many of them, the ship got stranded in ice on the north coast of Baring Island in the Arctic in this 1851 drawing. (National Archives of Canada/The Canadian Press)
Since the advent of powerful modern ships and industrial-strength icebreakers, somewhat more successful voyages have been made, but it has only been since the Arctic sea ice started melting at startling rates in the past 20 years that the glint in people’s eyes has grown.
What kind of difference do the potential new Arctic routes make?
The next map shows the distances between some of the competing routes, and hence the allure of the Arctic routes.
China has claimed that “the Arctic situation now goes beyond its original inter-Arctic States or regional nature.” The Arctic is no longer just a “region.” It’s a situation, and situations demand responses. Furthermore, the Arctic has a vital bearing on “the survival, the development, and the shared future for mankind.” They’ve stated their expectations; take note!
The next map is a little blurry and all in Chinese characters, so will be hard to make out. But have fun figuring out its positioning: Africa is in the lower left, South America is in the upper left, and I think the black line is going from Beijing to Washington, D.C. (or New York). It illustrates the importance of the northern routes to China.
There are a variety of Arctic routes that are opening up due to the reduction of Arctic Ocean ice coverage, some more accessible than others. This next map shows the main routes in use as follows: Red=Northwest Passage, Turquois=Northern Sea Route, Green=Transpolar Sea Route, Purple: Arctic Bridge Route.
This next map shows both recent and current usage of the current major routes, and also future projections. The expectation is for large-scale growth in a very fragile part of the world.
These next maps show how much more feasible Arctic shipping is in summer than in fall, winter, or spring. And this new summer look is only possible because of the changes climate change has already wrought on this part of the world. The thin red lines indicating the much further extent of the summer sea ice as recently as 10 years ago is telling.
A few points to ponder:
- When the Americans, Chinese, and Russians are all looking at supremacy in an ecologically fragile part of the planet, we should pay attention.
- Notice how many of these routes go through northern Canadian waters, which Inuit communities and Arctic animals call home.
- With the opening of these waters, the former U.S. president actually opened Arctic waters off Alaska for the drilling of oil. Let’s hope that is rethought.
- The same three superpowers are vying for access/control of Greenland’s emerging (as the ice cap melts) natural resources. Watch out, Greenlanders!
Some call the Arctic the soul of Canada. That notion wouldn’t resonate with all Canadians, but it does with me. So challenging, so spectacularly beautiful, so special, so deserving of our protection.