When trade between East and West was steadily becoming the norm in the seventeenth Century there was this great dream by traders and ship owners that a short cut could be found to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It was eventually discovered, after much searching and hardship, and called the North West Passage – far north in the Arctic Circle above what is now Canada. It was learnt that this route could be only made by ships, if at all, for a brief period in the summer time before the ice sheets closed it up completely. Ice could simply crush any obstacle that may get caught in its grip.
It was Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen who confirmed the route in 1906 when he sailed successfully right through the passage. Before this, many passage seekers died a miserable death from starvation, scurvy and the extreme cold trying to find their way with the hope that they may find wealth and fortune in the Far East. Ships madev of timber were crushed in the ice which, even if it cannot be seen floating on the surface, lurks unseen far below.
It is only in the last five years or so that the North West passage has become viable as a shipping route. It would not take much to guess why. It is the simple fact of global warming that has caused the Arctic ice to recede, thus opening the passage for at least four months of the year. In the summertime ice breakers are at the ready but aren’t always required to keep the passage free of floating ice.
Shipping companies who are immersed in the fears surrounding piracy attacks in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden are now considering using the route as their regular passage. Some shipping companies have already instructed ships’ captains to take cargo round the longer sea route that takes in the Cape of Good Hope around South Africa to avoid the piracy hot spots. This is of course of considerable cost to them and delays in delivering goods can be expected as well.
The North West passage is the potential answer that everyone is looking for as it is only one third of the distance between Europe and the Far East ports when compared to using the Suez Canal. It saves money on fuel; it takes a shorter period of time and at the moment there are no pirates. The race is on to ship minerals to China by the fastest and cheapest route before the demand wanes.
Of course, there are numerous drawbacks to using this route. In the first instance it is very poorly charted and, only recently, a strengthened cruise ship struck an uncharted undersea cliff in northern Canada. These types of accidents will still happen until the area has been better charted. The electronic navigational instruments used by all manner of sea craft today have not been tried and tested in areas of extremely low temperatures for long periods of time. There are still some lethal combinations of uncharted hazards, untested electronics and sea fog that could spell disaster for the unwary. However, a number of sailing yachts have made this trip in recent years following in the footsteps of Amundsen and they are the least seaworthy of today’s waterborne fleet.
Aside from the natural hazards, it is still not crystal clear as to whether the North West passage is owned by Canada or is in international waters. These things seem somewhat trivial but when it comes to the need for search and rescue services somebody has to be held responsible.
There are environmental considerations as well. As it is so remote, only the hardiest of travellers make this trip north to discover the wealth of wildlife and the dramatic Arctic scenery. Environmentalists are concerned that increasing traffic movement and the possibility of oil spills and other waste accidents could be potentially disastrous when it comes to protecting the wildlife populations which are already losing their icy habitats as a result of global warming. Polar bears and other Arctic mammals use the ice to provide bridges to widen their territories and search for food and mates.
Overall, there will most certainly be some interesting developments in the Arctic Circle in the coming years and it will be curious to see who and what will be the winners and losers with the expectation that by 2030 as much as two percent of world shipping will be taking this route, increasing to five percent by 2050.