THE NORTHWEST PASSAGE

21 Feb

For centuries explorers and ships have been lost in an attempt to find a path through this icy maze, a path that would allow faster transit between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans (said to be 40% quicker than through the Panama Canal). Amundsen realized that sea nearest to the mainland remained passable for longer for navigation. He was the first to sail from the Atlantic to the Pacific but the journey took years (1903-1906). His route was through shallow waters.
In 1957, three American Coast Guard Cutters, Storis, Bramble and Spar became the first to navigate a Deep Water Passage through the Northwest Canadian Archipelago but the time and costs involved were not economic in commercial terms. Now as an example of the benefits of climate change, the recent opening up of the Northwest Passage is one of the most remarkable. Previously any cargo vessel needed an escort from Canadian icebreakers.
The ice melt reached a point last year that allowed a strengthened cargo vessel to navigate through the passage without this escort. 23,000 tons of nickel were transported from a Canadian mine to China via the deep-water passage, saving time and costs – a remarkable first!
The Passage is within the Arctic Circle. Inevitably, as with the Antarctic, sovereignty questions arise. The United States, Canada, Russia and Denmark (Greenland), all have significant interests within the region. In addition, as mentioned in the Geographical (February, 2015), the Inuit population hunt and travel over the area. Canadian Rangers now mount permanent sovereignty patrols. Some Russians (inevitably) have suggested that the Rangers role is a militarization issue; the Rangers operate snow machines that keep the passage open. Let’s hope that their role will be accepted as a service to the worldwide community.

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