Friday, September 05, 2008

Northwest Passages

Alert reader Chantal Hachem noted that my account of the eccentricities of the nineteenth-century Royal Navy reminded her of a British Arctic explorer whose crewmen went mad eating rations from lead-lined food cans. That explorer, Sir John Franklin, was lost sometime between 1845 and 1848 during his search for the Northwest Passage, the all-water route from Europe to Asia by way of northern Canada which eluded so many European explorers. Franklin's story, recounted in Fergus Fleming's Barrow's Boys (Grove Press, 2001), is a harrowing and tragic one - tragic because the Northwest Passage turned out to be wishful thinking, since the permanent Arctic ice pack blocked the waterways through the northern Canadian islands. The Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, first European to traverse the Passage (1903-5), took more than two years to do so, as his ship became locked in the ice for two consecutive winters. Until recently the only large vessels capable of "sailing" all the way through the Northwest Passage in one season were nuclear submarines, which could travel under the ice.

But times change. One of the most important consequences of global warming is the shrinking of the permanent Arctic icepack, which, among other effects, has opened up the Northwest Passage to surface ships for at least part of the year. Last fall, a civilian passenger ship arrived in Barrow - the northernmost town in the United States, and previously a synonym for "remote Arctic wasteland" - and discharged 400 German tourists, who, I am sure, completely flummoxed the Inupiat inhabitants of the community. In consequence, the US Coast Guard began patrols into the Beaufort Sea, and this summer it opened temporary bases in two Arctic Ocean villages, including Barrow. Meanwhile, the governments of the United States, Canada, and Russia have begun discussions - heated arguments, actually - about ownership of the Northwest Passage (and its Russian equivalent, the Northeast Passage) and of the large oil and gas deposits believed to lie beneath the Arctic Ocean. I don't know whether Franklin would be pleased or astonished.

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