The Northwest Passage: The strait story

Everyone, even Wired magazine is jumping on the "news" from the European Space Agency that the Northwest Passage is open, right across the Arctic Archipelago. Which is odd because American researchers made the same announcement earlier this summer. We need better media coverage of the effects of climate change than this.

First, the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado had this to say on Sept 4:

Another notable aspect of August 2007 was the opening of the Northwest Passage... Might the Northeast Passage open in the next few weeks?

Five days later the center noted that "The Northwest Passage is still open." The news was accompanied by satellite photos that clearly show navigable waters through the Archipelago, so it's not as if there was any doubt about the facts.

And yet, the ESA announcement of Sept. 14 attracted heaps of media attention:

The area covered by sea ice in the Arctic has shrunk to its lowest level this week since satellite measurements began nearly 30 years ago, opening up the Northwest Passage - a long-sought short cut between Europe and Asia that has been historically impassable.

The two agencies use different metrics -- the ESA describes the decrease in ice cover to 3 million square kilometres, while the NSIDC talks of a record low ice extent of 4.24 million sq. km, as of Sept. 10. Either way, it's far below the norm. The historical mean sea ice extent for September is, by comparison, more than 5 million sq. km.

The AP, which converts the ESA numbers somewhat imprecisely to square miles, also manages to confuse the geography of the Arctic, wrapping up its coverage with:

The opening this week was not the most direct waterway, ESA said. That would be through northern Canada along the coast of Siberia, which remains partially blocked.

Which will be news to both Canadians and Russians, I expect.

The important thing that no one is focusing on is the particular route involved in this "Northwest Passage." The ESA has this map:

Note how far north the route is at the western end of the Northwest Passage and compare the attempted and successful routes actually taken in the past:

All successful navigation of the passage in the past involved a southern turn halfway through, passing south of Victoria and/or Banks islands. This is because of the obvious tendency of more southerly reaches to melt more thoroughly. The fact that there is now a more direct and navigable route to the north of both islands is quite remarkable.

The warming trend 1000 years ago that allowed for the Viking settlement of Greenland and the modern Inuit colonization of the Arctic from Alaska brought with it less summer ice cover, perhaps even as much as what we're seeing now. The early European explorers of the Arctic had the misfortune of trying to sail through the Archipelago after a cooling trend had set in. Just bad timing, it would seem.

That cooling trend has apparently come to end in both the Canadian and Arctic sides of the North Polar region. The resulting spats over who controls these waters and the resources below are only going to get more heated, and may represent some the first serious political consequences of climate change.

The subject is also the inspiration for one of my favorite folk songs: The Northwest Passage, by the late great Stan Rogers. Here's the chorus:

Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage

To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea;

Tracing one warm line through a land so wild and savage

And make a Northwest Passage to the sea.


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I agree that the conflicts over who controls the Arctic waters will only get more heated in the future. All parties involved are warily maneuvering around each other - who controls the North Pole seabed, the Northwest Passage,etc. If I'm not mistaken both Canada and the U.S. have ordered (or already may have) new icebreakers partly in anticipation of a navigable Northwest Passage.

I still have the old Stan Rogers lp "Northwest Passage" around somewhere, with its great a cappella version of the title track. The whole album is excellent and provides a bit of a travelogue across Canada circa 1982 (I was working in the oil industry in Houston at that time and met some Canadian engineers from Calgary who had grown up and gone to school in Halifax before moving west - just like the guy in the song "The Idiot"). I missed a chance of hearing him a folk festival in central Texas just a year or so before he died in 1983.

Perhaps ESA is three months late because they just started to examine their data? (/snark). I've been watching the ice this year and in June it was pretty clear that you could sail east from Murmansk to Tokyo if you wanted.

The opening of the Northwest Passage (thanks for Stan's song since I sing it often) is not good news. It just opens [sic] us up for contentious ownership issues, hegemony and pollution. It won't be long before oil tankers try to get through there to get to the east coast. Ever heard of the Titanic? Try to turn an oil tanker when you are bearing down on an iceberg. And much of the "Passage" has very shallow depths. It won't be long before someone goes aground and they will be trying to get the frozen oil off the surface of the ice.

Prime Minister Harper's solution is to open a military "training" base in Resolute. There's pollution in waiting. I was up at Alert in the 1980's and it was one big garbage dump. At least it kept the wolves and foxes fed, too bad it was with PCB laden crap.

I'm praying for a good hard winter to change these guys minds.

By captainlaser (not verified) on 15 Sep 2007 #permalink

I like that the satellite image clearly shows the hole at the top of the world that leads down into the hollow center of the earth.

Thanks for the Stan Rogers snippet. I'm already humming it - I'm doomed for the rest of the day.


By Dave Gill (not verified) on 15 Sep 2007 #permalink

Best title since the movie "House Two: The Second Story".

The black circle in the center covers the activities of Santa. Who, with his wife, reindeer and elves are moving to the antarctic pole, which, at least, has hard ground even when all the ice is gone. Expect smaller, lighter presents in the Northern Hemisphere, as Santa doesn't really want to lug all that junk the extra distance. Santa has said that he's not getting any younger, though some pundits have speculated that he's just pissed off that he's got to move, and it's mostly Northern Hemispherians fault. Well, duh! Yet, don't expect a lump of coal in your stocking.