Recently, the Northwest Passage is in the news due to two very different stories: A long lost shipwreck and a modern bulk freighter on her way to China.
What is happening in the Canadian Arctic?
The Northwest Passage is a legendary route since European explorers realized that there is no direct western route from Europe to Asia. It links the northern Atlantic Ocean with the northern Pacific Ocean via the Canadian Arctic.
John Cabot was the first European explorer who reached North America in 1497 taking a more northern approach to find the western route to China than Columbus did five years before.
Magellan was successful in 1520 to find a way around the Americas in the south on his voyage around the world. Only after another 400 years Roald Amundsen was able to repeat this in the north, when he navigated the Northwest Passage in 1906.
One of the tragic stories in the history of the Northwest Passage is the loss of the Franklin expedition.
Sir John Franklin, an experienced British navy officer was given command of an expedition to finally navigate the passage in 1845. Two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror with over 130 men survived their first winter in the arctic but then got lost.
Several rescue expeditions were launched in the coming years, which found some remains of the expedition. However, both ships sunk and all men died in the arctic and until this day the tragedy is not fully understood.
This September however, a Canadian expedition found a shipwreck near King William Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and was able to identify it as the HMS Erebus after almost 170 years.
For Canada, the Arctic becomes more important in recent years due to the general climate change.
The polar icecap retreats and this opens up more areas to shipping.
The Northwest Passage may finally become a real alternative for shipping from Europe to Asia or the US east coast to Asia. Current shipping routes through the Panama canal or through the Mediterranean and the Suez canal are considerably longer and thus more expensive. Arctic waters however, are still dangerous to modern shipping and potential accidents can have a huge impact on the fragile environment as the Exxon Valdez spill showed.
The second story from September this year is that of a freight ship navigating the passage on its way to China unassisted by icebreakers.
The MS Nunavik, which made the trip this year, as well the MS Nordic Orion – claiming to be the first freighter to use the passage – still need ice strengthened hulls, but they are part of what might become a boom for Northern Canada.
All this is going on, while a big expansion program on the hundred year old Panama Canal is nearing completion and Chinese businesses are proposing a second canal to cross Central America in Nicaragua.
Global shipping today is more important than ever. The Northwest Passage was an almost mystical goal for explorers for centuries and today’s climate change may transform it one of the trade routes of tomorrow.Share This: