Exploring the History & Limitations of the Northwest Passage

Image Courtesy: Wikipedia

In the quest to expand trade and transfer goods and services as quickly and widely as possible, many shipping routes have been discovered over the years. Some of these are easy to manoeuvre, while others are dangerous and have even been deadly to discover. One such route is the Northwest Passage (NWP). The quest for the NWP was one of the world’s severest maritime challenges.


The route is located 500 miles (800 km) north of the Arctic Circle and less than 1,200 miles (1,930 km) from the North Pole. It consists of a series of deep channels through Canada’s Arctic Archipelago, extending about 900 miles (1,450 km) from east to west, from north of Baffin Island to the Beaufort Sea, above the U.S. state of Alaska.

Reaching the Northwest Passage from the Atlantic requires a hazardous voyage through a stream of tens of thousands of giant icebergs, which could rise up to 300 feet (90 metres) in height, constantly drifting south between Greenland and Baffin Island. The exit to the Pacific is equally formidable, because the polar ice cap presses down on Alaska’s shallow north coast much of the year and funnels masses of ice into the Bering Strait, between Alaska and Siberia.

Image Courtesy: Britannica

Discovering the Route

The first recorded attempt to discover the Northwest Passage was the east-west voyage of John Cabot in 1497, sent by Henry VII in search of a direct route to the Orient. In 1524, Charles V sent Estêvão Gomes to find a northern Atlantic passage to the Spice Islands. Sir Humphrey Gilbert, whose treatise on the passage inspired many voyages by others, drowned during his own attempt in 1583. Henry Hudson, his young son, and seven others were cast adrift by a mutinous crew in 1611 when his discovery of Hudson Bay proved to be an icy trap instead of the passage he sought. Knowledge of an Arctic passage came slowly, over hundreds of years, from information gathered during voyages by such explorers as John Davis, William Baffin, Sir John Ross, Sir William Parry, Frederick William Beechey, and Sir George Back, augmented by overland expeditions by Henry Kelsey, Samuel Hearne, and Sir Alexander Mackenzie. The worst tragedy came when Sir John Franklin and 128 men aboard HMS Erebusand HMS Terror vanished in 1845.

One searcher for the lost Franklin expedition, Robert (later Sir Robert) McClure, entered the passage from the west, became locked in the ice for two winters, and then sledged overland to another rescue ship coming from the east, thus completing the first one-way transit of the Northwest Passage in 1854. Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld led a Swedish-Russian voyage through the Northeast Passage (called the Northern Sea Route in Russia) over the top of Eurasia in 1878–79, and Soviet and later Russian polar icebreakers opened that route to limited use in modern times.

Present Scenarion

Since about 2000, the Arctic climate has changed significantly, brought on by global warming, with the consequence that in most years, summer sea-ice coverage has declined to record minimums. As a result, there were periods of time in late summer when the Northwest Passage was wholly or largely ice free. With increased access, more icebreakers and government and research vessels traveled to and through the passage. There has been a progressive, year-by-year decline in the thickness and extent of Arctic sea ice. NASA studies have shown that the extent of Arctic sea ice is declining at a rate of several percent per decade. As the ice cover is removed, solar radiation penetrates the water and warms it, instead of being reflected from the white ice. During the past few years, satellite images taken near the end of the Arctic summer often show that large portions of the Passage are relatively ice-free. In September, satellite images show that the Arctic Ocean has been clear enough to sail straight through the Northwest Passage.

Opening the Northwest Passage to regular commercial ocean traffic would have worldwide economic significance in natural resources, transportation, and trade relations between countries. The greatest impact would be on the United States and Canada, but effects could be felt from the Persian Gulf to Panama and from Chile to Scandinavia. But competitive developments, governmental policies, and many complex economic issues are likely to determine how soon, and how much, such a route would be used. The cost of strengthening ships against ice and the probable high insurance rates for vessels used in Arctic service, however, may diminish the use of the Northwest Passage as a trade route.

Image Courtesy: EYOS Expeditions

Using the NWP would cut the distance between London and Tokyo, for example, to less than 8,000 miles (12,870 km) from the 14,670-mile (23,600-km) route around Africa made necessary when the Suez Canal was shut down (1967–75). The Northwest Passage also might permit the use of larger vessels than are allowed by the dimensions of the Panama and Suez canals—despite improvements to both waterways in the early 21st century. Icebreaking techniques learned in the Northwest Passage could be applied in other ice-locked waters from the Great Lakes to the Baltic Sea, including Russia’s Northern Sea Route with its vast Siberian oil fields. Canada has held sovereignty over the Arctic Archipelago since 1880, but some countries, including the United States, have contended that much of the Northwest Passage is in international waters. Canada has indicated that it would welcome international commerce over the route, subject to pollution-control regulations.

According to Over the Circle, the possibility of future cargo shipping by China, and potentially other countries, via the NWP throws open not only the question of sovereignty and jurisdiction but also safety and monitoring concerns.

Thus, while this once deadly route can now be navigated through, there are still several issues that need to be addressed before it is a commercially viable option.

References: Wikipedia, Britannica, Geology, Eduplace, Over the Circle

Sea News Feature, February 14