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Opening the Northwest Passage

In recent years, in the wake of scientific reports of rapid melting in the Arctic, some have taken to declaring that the fabled Northwest Passage, sought for centuries by mariners and merchants, will soon be open for shipping, shaving thousands of miles off trips that would otherwise have gone through the Panama Canal.

ByPeter TysonNova

"Within a decade or two, climatologists predict, the route through the Arctic archipelago could be navigable year-round," states an editorial in The Toronto Star of April 5, 2004. Others suggest it's even more imminent. In September 2002, the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee (CARC) said in a fund-raising letter that the Arctic ice cap was "melting so quickly that within the next 15 years it's likely that the once impassable Northwest Passage will be open to shipping all year round."

To many Arctic experts, such claims are at best overstated—one said the CARC letter "takes the Canadian cake for exaggeration"—at worst irresponsible. For many impediments appear to block the way to an open and active shipping route through the Canadian archipelago, and to suggest otherwise could lead to a dangerous complacency about conditions in the passage.

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Multiyear Sea Ice
So-called multiyear sea ice, which lasts more than one winter and has been likened to floating steel, is just one of the hindrances that ship captains hoping to cross the Northwest Passage would find in coming decades, experts say.
Courtesy Don Perovich

Iced up

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For starters, nobody with any expertise is claiming that the Northwest Passage will be open year-round in the foreseeable future. Global warming has no effect on the Earth's tilt on its axis, and winter in the Arctic will still do its thing. "For as long as we can see, there will be a seasonal ice cover in the wintertime in the Arctic," says John Falkingham, Chief of Ice Forecasting for the Canadian Ice Service (CIS). "It still gets dark and cold up there, and the ocean's going to freeze."

When experts talk about "ice-free" conditions, they're talking in the summer. But even then the expected window is short. Currently the Canadian Arctic's shipping season, such as it is, lasts only about four to six weeks, and that's not going to change anytime soon. "We don't expect the Northwest Passage to be free of ice for an extended period of the summer until much later in the century," says Falkingham, who has 30 years' experience with the CIS.

Two other ways through the Arctic will likely become viable before the Northwest Passage does.

As with weather, this prolonged transitional period will feature good ice years and bad ice years, and lots of so-called multiyear ice will still be floating around. Unlike seasonal ice, which melts every spring, multiyear ice sticks around and hardens into what one expert calls "the equivalent of floating steel." "As long as there's much [multiyear ice], a ship will have to be ice-strengthened if it's going to go through there at all," says Franklyn Griffiths, an Arctic expert at the University of Toronto. "Yet shipping companies will not be able to amortize the costs of ice-strengthening in a way that makes it practical for them to use the Northwest Passage for intercontinental voyages. Instead they'll use Suez and Panama."

With conditions likely remaining hazardous for some time to come, Griffiths for one feels it's reckless to suggest that the Passage is passable. "The more people believe the Northwest Passage is open, the more somebody's likely to make a mistake and try to come through. We just shouldn't endanger ourselves." Even icebreakers can have a hard time of it there. Griffiths says a Swedish icebreaker went through the Passage last summer, and in places it could only manage a speed of one knot because of the ice. "If an icebreaker is doing one knot, let me tell you, a thin-skinned container ship is going to go nowhere except to the bottom," he says.

Ship Oden in Ice
Despite the reported widespread thinning of Arctic ice, even the Swedish icebreaker Oden had trouble negotiating the Northwest Passage when it muscled through in mid-July 2005.
Courtesy United States Antarctic Program

alternate passages

Besides, two other ways through the Arctic will likely become viable before the Northwest Passage does. One is the Northeast Passage, the one that hugs the northern coastline of Eurasia. More commonly referred to as the Northern Sea Route, this waterway provides a more straightforward path than the labyrinthine Canadian archipelago allows; rather than Canada's thicket of islands, Russia's route has just several straits for ships to pass through. And its summertime ice conditions are often better. The Northern Sea Route is already open up to eight weeks a year, with at least a million and half tons of shipping going through.

The other Arctic sea route that will likely open before the Northwest Passage is one straight over the top of the world. "What if there was some sort of international icebreaking fleet, and we broke a shortcut like an E-Z Pass lane right over the North Pole?" says Scott Borgerson, a foreign policy expert at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. "You would already save 5,000 miles by going over Eurasia or North America, but if you can save 8,000 miles—that would be an interesting idea." And not a pie-in-the-sky one. "Before the Northwest Passage itself becomes a regular shipping route, I expect that there will be a regular shipping route from Murmansk to Tokyo right across the North Pole," says Falkingham, one of several experts who mentioned this likelihood.

Map of Artic
Even a shipping route straight across the North Pole is more likely to happen in this century than a route through the Northwest Passage, with its scatter of ice-choked islands.
Courtesy CIA

Missing pieces

Such a route might avoid another problem with using the Northwest Passage: disputed ownership. Canada deems the passageway its internal waters, while the United States and European Union consider it international. "Unless we conquer this political problem, it's probably not worth it," says Garrett Brass, executive director of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission in Washington. "The Northern Sea Route is shorter and quicker and easier to use."

Despite all the obstacles, one wild card might speed efforts to open up the Northwest Passage.

Moreover, much of the Arctic Ocean, including long stretches of the Northwest Passage, remains poorly charted—another strike against any near-term viability of the passage for shipping. For parts of the crossing today, ship captains must rely on charts made during searches for the lost Franklin expedition in the mid-1800s, and major new subsurface features turn up regularly. "Our very first trip up there we found a seamount that rose from 4,000 meters up to less than 900 meters, and all the existing charts showed nothing there at all," says Larry Mayer, director of the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping at the University of New Hampshire. The Center is conducting undersea mapping for the U.S. along the western portion of the Northwest Passage off Alaska, in part to help resolve international boundary issues.

Resources to support shipping in the passage are also nonexistent. "There's the ice situation, but there are also a lot of other issues around shipping, such as aids to navigation, search and rescue, what happens if you have a mechanical breakdown—there's just no infrastructure there to assist them," Falkingham says.

Polar bear in ice
While ice along the Northwest Passage isn't likely to melt sufficiently for shipping anytime soon, specialists believe, it is melting enough to seriously impact Arctic wildlife, including polar bears, which rely on sea ice as a platform for hunting.
Courtesy NASA

And yet...

Despite all the obstacles, one wild card might speed efforts to open up the Northwest Passage sooner rather than later: fossil fuel. With supplies dwindling worldwide and prices soaring to record levels, known and suspected fields of oil and natural gas beneath the Arctic are becoming increasingly coveted. How the energy situation plays out in coming decades may very well determine how soon ships begin plying the Northwest Passage.

For this reason—as well as existing and potential threats to Arctic wildlife, ecosystems, and Inuit residents arising out of both the melting and the burgeoning international interest in the Arctic—many experts feel it's not too early to start readying ourselves for a working passage.

"It's not the Wild Wild West up there, but it's pretty damn close it," says Borgerson. "Nations are scurrying to protect their own national interests without any clear direction or framework in which to do it. Something needs to exist up there." For his part, Borgerson feels the U.S. should take the lead in articulating a vision for how Arctic nations should manage the Far North—with or without an opened Northwest Passage.

Editor's Notes

This feature originally appeared on the site for the NOVA program Arctic Passage.

National corporate funding for NOVA is provided by Draper. Major funding for NOVA is provided by the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS viewers. Additional funding is provided by the NOVA Science Trust.