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Panama Canal - Northwest Passage

For over 500 years, Arctic explorers have sought a passage between the North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Such a passage, often called the Northwest Passage, would connect Europe to Asia via shorter routes than the long voyage south around Africa. Searching for the "Northwest Passage" - a hoped-for commercial sea route from the Atlantic to the Pacific, north and west of the North American landmass - provided the motive for much exploration of North America. The frozen north, however, proved far more difficult, and the five-century quest for the Northwest Passage ended mostly in failure.

In 1492 Christopher Columbus landed in the Caribbean looking for a western route to Asia. In 1497, English King Henry VII sent Venetian explorer John Cabot to look for this hypothetical route and expeditions from some of the most famous explorers in the centuries that followed - Sir Francis Drake, Robert Cavelier de La Salle and Captain James Cook among them - met with failure. By 1529 reliable maps of the Atlantic coastline from Labrador to Tierra del Fuego had been drawn up, although it would take more than another century before hope of discovering a "Northwest Passage" to Asia would be completely abandoned. In the early twentieth century, Roald Amundsen succeeded, but only by taking a route south of Victoria Island in a trip in a period of time from 1903-1906, over three years.

In 1803, President Jefferson commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to find another Northwest Passage - the link between the Missouri River and the Columbia River through the unexplored Rocky Mountains. On 11 August 1804 they found the headwaters of the Missouri. But on the far side of the Continental Divide, they found, not the watershed of the Columbia River, but immense ranges of high mountains still to the west. There was no mythical passage.

The combined efforts of a number of explorers eventually uncovered a winding path from the Atlantic to the Arctic and Pacific Oceans through the ice-bound islands of northern Canada. The Northwest Passages is a sea route through the Arctic Ocean along the northern coast of North America, and it connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It's a direct route. The sea route winds through various islands of what's called the Canadian archipelago - a set of islands and peninsulas that are in part attached to, but in part separate from, the Canada mainland.

On 14 September 1969 The S.S. Manhattan, an ice-breaking tanker, became the first commercial ship to voyage through the Northwest Passage. The vessel left Chester, PA, on 24 August 1969 and arrived at Point Barrow, Alaska, on 21 September 1969. The project, a test of the feasibility of transporting crude oil by sea from northern Alaska, cost three oil companies $40 million. The voyage proved it was technically feasible to send an oil tanker through the Arctic, but not economically or environmentally sound. Instead, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was built to bring the oil to Valdez on Prince William Sound. The Manhattan's voyage, coming on the heels of the Apollo 11 moonwalk, was an epic feat of exploration. It showed that it was possible for a commercial vessel to conquer the ice and extreme cold of the Arctic.

The Canadian government considers the Northwestern Passages part of the Canadian internal waters. But various other Arctic countries maintain that the passage aree an international strait or transit passage that allows unencumbered transit into and through the Arctic Ocean, mostly from Europe to Asia and the Pacific. The United States position is that the Northwest Passage is a strait used for international navigation. That is the position of the majority of countries in the world. No one in the United States is claiming sovereignty over these lands or disputing Canadian sovereignty over its Arctic Territories or disputing mineral rights or fishing rights.

In the summer of 2007, the fabled passage saw enough ice melt to make navigation feasible. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center's Arctic Sea Ice News Fall 2007, the passage was nearly ice-free for several weeks. Multi-year ice (ice that survives more than one melt season) tends to be thicker and more resistant to melt than first-year ice (formed over just one winter). According to the Canadian Ice Service, most of the multi-year ice melted from Victoria Strait and McClintock Channel in the summer of 2006, leaving these traditionally difficult areas more open. In mid-August 2007, only patchy areas of ice filled Victoria Strait and Larsen Sound.

At the beginning of the 2007 melt season, ice conditions resembled those of an average year, but in June, melting accelerated. Warm temperatures and unusually clear skies played a role, but so did other factors. Atmospheric circulation patterns that tended to flush ice out of the Arctic continued from previous years, and NSIDC cited growing evidence that Arctic sea ice had shifted from thick ice to thin ice that melts more rapidly. During a two-week period in late June and early July, Arctic sea ice declined as much as 210,000 square kilometers (81,081 square miles) per day. Although ice declines occurred throughout the Arctic, ice loss in the East Siberian Sea accounted for most of the sea ice loss detectable by early July 2007.

Although nearly open, the Northwest Passage was not necessarily easy to navigate in August 2007. Located 800 kilometers (500 miles) north of the Arctic Circle and less than 1,930 kilometers (1,200 miles) from the North Pole, this sea route poses significant challenges, and the severe depletion of sea ice means only one of these is reduced. Nevertheless, long-term opening of the passage would have global impacts on trade and natural resource use.

Many studies have been developed recently in relation to the phenomena of global warming, which indicate that the Arctic ice cover is gradually thinning, and that, by the end of the 21st century during the summer months, the Arctic might be partially free of ice. It is speculated that, by that time, a seasonal maritime commercial route might be opened between Asia and the U.S. East Coast through the Arctic, to the north of Canada.

In January 2005, a team of scientists from the U.S. Arctic Research Commission presented to the Panama Canal Authority, in Panama, their analysis and conclusions on the possibility of future commercial navigation through the Arctic. The scientific team from the Arctic Research Commission was led by doctors George B. Newton and Lawson Brigham. Dr. Newton is the person designated by the President of the United States as Chairman of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. Dr. Brigham has broad icebreaker vessels operation experience in the Arctic and the Antarctic.

These scientists concluded that during the 21st century the central Arctic and all its peripheral seas will continue to have a significant ice cover. It is probable that after the year 2050 the so-called Northwest Passage to the north of Canada could be ice-free during the three summer months and could be navigable to ships other than icebreakers during this short period. It is forecasted that the Central Arctic Ocean will have a significant ice cover during the rest of the year, which would hinder routine commercial navigation.

These results coincide with results from other studies, such as the one submitted in August 2005 by a team of scientist's from the University of Arizona on the potential melting of the Arctic. This study was led by Jonathan T. Overpeck ["Arctic System on Trajectory to New, Seasonally Ice-Free State", Eos, Vol. 86, No. 34, 23 August 2005]. It concluded that with the present melting rate, the Arctic might lose its ice cap during the summer months at the end of this century. It is not probable that carriers who offer liner services itineraries between Northeast Asia and the U.S. East Coast, would divert services from the Panama or the transpacific routes to the Arctic route for two or three months every year, especially when the route's navigability and availability will be unpredictable, it will lack navigational aids, have little port connectivity and comprise Canadian jurisdictional waters.

One study ["Future abrupt reductions in the summer Arctic sea ice" Marika M. Holland, Cecilia M. Bitz, and Bruno Tremblay, GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH LETTERS, VOL. 33, 2006] found that the last ice to melt will be in the Canadian Arctic. Multi-year ice will linger longest in the Northwest Passage and high inter-annual variability will continue. The Northern Sea Route and Transpolar route will open first and be more reliable, attractive ocean transit routes.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:54:56 ZULU