Could the Northwest Passage open for business?

As ships made their way through the Arctic on adventure and whaling missions, explorers pieced together knowledge of the Northwest Passage.
Gilbert Pajot/The Bridgeman Art Library/Getty Images

Western explorers began looking for a shortcut between Europe and Asia more than 500 years ago. Some went so­uth, where they discovered the enticingly narrow Panamanian isthmus. Others aimed north, bumping into the American continent and pursuing inland waterways. Henry Hudson found himself trapped with a mutinous crew in a bay that lead nowhere near as close to the Pacific as he had hoped it would. Captain James Cook concluded that there was no passage through North America after making it to the Bering Straight; he was stabbed in the back by Hawaiian natives on his return home. But after centuries of expeditions by sea and land, explorers eventually pieced together knowledge of a viable -- though frozen -- route from Baffin Bay to the Bering Sea, and thus from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The fabled Northwest Passage did exist after all.­

This pas­sage runs 900 miles (1,450 km) through a chain of deep Arctic channels and what are now Canada's Arctic Islands. Since the entrance is 500 miles (800 km) north of the Arctic Circle, access to the passage requires dangerous navigation around bobbing icebergs [source: Encyclopaedia Britannica]. And although the passage was traversed by sled and ship in 1854, completed by ship alone over a period of three years in 1906, and finally navigated in a single season by 1944, it hasn't been considered "fully navigable" until now [source: ESA].


­That's because in 2007, the European Space Agency (ESA) released a mosaic of satellite images showing the Arctic sea passage m­elted and clear. The planet's rising temperatures have caused Arctic ice to thaw at a rate faster than normal. Sea ice is bright white and reflective, allowing most of the sun's rays bounce off of its surface. But when sea ice melts, it exposes dark ocean waters. Since the water's surface is dark instead of light, it absorbs solar energy instead of reflecting it. As the ocean warms, new ice has trouble forming. In this way, the ice melt of a summer is compounded over the next summer, and the next. In the past decade, Arctic ice has melted at about 38,610 sq miles (100,000 sq km) per year. But between 2006 and 2007, it dropped 386,102 sq miles (1 million sq km) -- the biggest drop since measurements began in 1978 [source: ESA]. With such a sharp decline in ice cover, the passage thawed again in 2008.

The drop in ice cover is unsettling environmentally, but it's stirred up the interesting prospect of a new shipping artery to rival the Suez and Panama Canal's.


A Navigable Arctic Circle

A mosaic of images from 2007 shows that the Northwest Passage (represented in orange) is open. The Northeast Passage (in blue) didn't thaw completely in 2007. The dark gray areas are ice-free, while green represents areas with sea ice.
Photo courtesy ESA

Control of an international trade route is a valuable right. To build and manage the Panama Canal, the United States supported a revolution and spent more on a construction project than it ever had before. To open up the Suez Canal, the Egyptian government leased its land to a private French company and enslaved its own people.

So it's no surprise that after the European Space Agency's announcement, countries with Arctic borders started scrambling for control of the route. Canada immediately claimed rights to regulate and bar transit in the passage. Due to the route's path through Canada's Arctic Islands, the country's Prime Minister even went so far as to ask that all large ships entering the passage first register with the Canadian Coast Guard [source: BBC News].­


Yet such claims are contested by Russia, Norway, the United States and Denmark, all of which feel they have a stake in the route's regulation. Control over the melted waters promises much more than shipping rights -- it could also include access to formally unreachable oil and gas deposits. For now, the five nations with Arctic borders have agreed to resolve their territorial disputes diplomatically and abide by the existing laws and treaties.

Indigenous peoples have also felt the lure -- or threat -- of an operable international passage. While some are interested in the possibility of a booming economic enterprise, others feel that their traditions and way of life will be compromised by the industry and its ecological effects [source: New York Times]. But while indigenous peoples, locals and environmentalists may have fears that hosting an international shipping industry in the delicate Arctic will only exacerbate the area's environmental problems, it's likely governments and businesses will press ahead to commercialize the route. The Canadian government even explained its bold claim of the passage as an act of environmental stewardship since it plans to regulate shipping [source: BBC News].­

­Of course, if the sea ice continues to melt at its current pace, arguments over the passage's control will be irrelevant -- ships will be able to simply cross the pole through open waters. And it's unlikely that regular commercial shipping will take off any time soon. Despite the Arctic's rapid thaw, it's still frozen through the winter, making the passage's navigability seasonal. It's also icy, difficult and dangerous -- ships would need to be constructed or fortified to withstand the ice, as well as heavily insured to make the passage safely. There are no ports for refueling or restocking the ships, and there are a limited number of Arctic pilots with the know-how to navigate the route.

­But it's certain that the opening of such a handy short-cut won't be brushed aside. Areas of the Arctic that were long-impenetrable to explorers -- let alone traders -- will likely be the backdrop to colossal post-panamax freighters loaded with cars, clothes and food.


Lots More Information

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  • "Northwest Passage." Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Library Edition. (Sept. 12, 2008).
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