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Northwest Passage

Northwest Passage



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The Northwest Passage is a famed sea route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean through a group of sparsely populated Canadian islands known as the Arctic Archipelago. European explorers first began to search for the Northwest Passage in the fifteenth century, but treacherous conditions and sea ice cover made the route impassible, foiling many expeditions. Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen became the first to successfully navigate the Northwest Passage in 1906. Climate change has caused Arctic ice cover to thin in recent years, opening the passage to marine shipping. In summer 2007, the route was entirely ice-free for the first time in recorded history.

Where Is the Northwest Passage?

The Northwest Passage spans roughly 900 miles from the North Atlantic north of Canada’s Baffin Island in the east to the Beaufort Sea north of the U.S. state of Alaska in the west. It’s located entirely within the Arctic Circle, less than 1,200 miles from the North [JR1] .

Traversing the frozen Northwest Passage historically has required a hazardous journey through thousands of giant icebergs that could rise up to 300 feet above the surface of the water and huge masses of sea ice that could seal the passage and trap ships for months at a time.

The idea of a northwest sea route from Europe to East Asia dates back at least to the second century A.D. and the world maps of Greco-Roman geographer Ptolemy. Europeans developed interest in the sea passage after the Ottoman Empire monopolized major overland trade routes between Europe and Asia in the fifteenth century.

Northwest Passage Expeditions

John Cabot

John Cabot, a Venetian navigator living in England, became the first European to explore the Northwest Passage in 1497.

He sailed from Bristol, England, in May with a small crew of 18 men and made landfall somewhere in the Canadian Maritime islands the following month. Like Christopher Columbus five years before him, Cabot thought he had reached the shores of Asia.

King Henry VII authorized a second, larger expedition for Cabot in 1498. This expedition included five ships and 200 men. Cabot and his crew never returned. They are thought to have been shipwrecked in a severe storm in the North Atlantic.

Jacques Cartier

In 1534, King Francis I of France sent explorer Jacques Cartier to the New World in search of riches… and a faster route to Asia. He took two ships and 61 men with him, exploring the coast of Newfoundland and the Gulf of St. Lawrence and discovering today’s Prince Edward Island, but not the Northwest Passage.

Cartier’s second voyage took him up the St. Lawrence River to Quebec, which he is credited with founding. Faced with scurvy among his men and increasingly angry Iroquois, Cartier captured Iroquois chiefs and brought them to France, where they told King Francis I about another great river that lead Westward to riches and, perhaps, Asia.

Cartier’s third voyage took place in 1541 and was not successful. He retired to his estate in Saint-Malo, never to sail again.

Francisco de Ulloa

The Spanish referred to The Northwest Passage as the "Straight of Anián." In 1539, Spanish explorer Francisco de Ulloa, funded by Hernán Cortés, set sail from Acapulco, Mexico, in search of a Pacific route to the Northwest Passage. He sailed North up the California Coast as far as the Gulf of California, but turned around when he was unable to find the fabled Straight of Anián. He is credited with proving that California is a peninsula, not an island–a popular misconception at the time.

Henry Hudson

In 1609, the merchants of the Dutch East India Company hired English explorer Henry Hudson to find the Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Hudson navigated along the North American coast looking for a more southern, ice-free route across the North American continent to the Pacific Ocean.

Hudson and his crew sailed around Long Island and into New York’s Hudson River, but turned back when they realized it was not a through-channel. While Hudson didn’t discover the Northwest Passage, his voyage was the first step toward Dutch colonization of New York and the Hudson River area.

Henry Hudson made another attempt at the Northwest Passage in 1610. This time he sailed north into Canada’s massive Hudson Bay where he drifted for months and became trapped in the ice.

By spring of 1611, his crew mutinied. Once they were free of the ice, the mutineers set Hudson and those loyal to him adrift in a small boat before the mutineers returned to England. Hudson was never seen again.

READ MORE: Henry Hudson

John Franklin

The most tragic Northwest Passage expedition may have been that led by English Royal Navy officer and Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin in 1845. Franklin’s expedition set sail with 128 men aboard two ships, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror. The ships vanished.

It’s suspected that both ships became ice-bound and were abandoned by their crews. Nineteenth century reports from local Inuit suggested the men may have resorted to cannibalism as they trekked on foot across the ice.

Archaeologists recovered skeletons of some of Franklin’s crew on Nunavut’s King William Island in the early 1990s. Cut marks on the bones support the cannibalism claims.

A Parks Canada diving expedition found the wreckage of the HMS Erebus in 2014 off of King William Island. The wreckage of the HMS Terror was discovered slightly north, in Terror Bay, two years later.

READ MORE: What Happened to the Doomed Franklin Expedition?

Roald Amundsen

In 1850, Irish Arctic explorer Robert McClure and his crew set sail from England in search of Franklin’s lost expedition.

McClure confirmed the existence of the route when his crew became the first to traverse the Northwest Passage—by ship and over the ice on sled—in 1854. Yet it would be more than fifty years before Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen would make the entire passage by sea.

After a three-year expedition, Amundsen and his crew, aboard a small fishing ship called Gjøa, reached Nome on Alaska’s Pacific coast in 1906.

READ MORE: The Treacherous Race to the South Pole

Northwest Passage and Climate Change

The passage wasn’t a commercially viable shipping route due to the sea ice, so only a handful of ships traversed the entire Northwest Passage in the decades following Amundsen’s 1906 crossing.

That’s now changed, as climate change and warming temperatures causes Arctic sea ice to melt, creating greater access to the waters. The entire route was ice-free for the first time in recorded history in the summer of 2007.

Traffic through the Arctic sea route has increased in the past decade. In 2012, a record 30 ships made the transit. Crystal Serenity, a luxury cruise ship, made headlines in 2016 when it became the first tourist cruise ship to navigate the Northwest Passage.

Less ice means that marine species once separated by the North American continent are now able to cross from ocean to ocean with greater ease.

In 2010, two gray whales—native to the Pacific Ocean—were spotted in the Atlantic Ocean for the first time in more than 200 years. Experts think the Pacific whales may have made their way through the open waters of the Northwest Passage and the Arctic Ocean into the Atlantic.

Increased access to the route has stirred up a decades-old debate over who controls the Arctic waters. Canada claims parts of the passage as its own territorial waters, while the U.S. calls the Northwest Passage international waters.

READ MORE: Climate Change History

Sources

Trends in shipping in the Northwest Passage and Beafort Sea; Environment Canada.
The Franklin Expedition; Parks Canada.
Francisco de Ulloa; The California Historical Society
These maps show the epic quest for a Northwest Passage; National Geographic News.


Northwest Passage - HISTORY

Finding a direct route by sea to China became something of an obsession for the kingdoms of Western Europe in the mid-1400s after the Ottoman Turk Empire gained control of much of the Middle East. Finding a the Northwest Passage was a 400-year obsession for sea-faring nations.

It was well understood that trade with China, then most often called Cathay, was a source of tremendous wealth. But after the Turks took command of the East, sea powers like England, Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands had no easy access to the Far East. The only alternative was to sail south around the Horn of Africa and then head east through the Indian Ocean on the way to Cathay – an agonizingly long journey that drastically reduced the advantage of any trade in the Orient.

Discovery of America

Thus, after Columbus discovered the American continent in 1492, a flame of excitement ignited across Europe over the possibility that Cathay could be reached by sailing directly west. In fact, that was the initial goal of Columbus. Columbus is most known for “discovering America” but less is said about the fact that he also sailed north and became the first European to make a tentative stab at what came to be known as The Northwest Passage.

Short-Term Profit

One might think that after the discovery of a continent as huge and magnificent as North America, all interest in a Northwest Passage and Chinese trade would have taken a back seat to the potential wealth of the New World. But in those times, there was no basic economic model that could deliver fast profits for European countries. Back then, short-term profits were the goal. What early explorers needed to do was find quick pay-off resources, especially easy access to gold or silver. The Spaniards and Portuguese found just that in the form of the Inca and Aztec civilizations of Central and South America. They enjoyed an immediate payoff by conquering and robbing the riches of the ancient peoples in those regions.

But for England, realizing any form of wealth from North America would not be so easy. Unlike South America, there was no gold-rich civilization to plunder, but rather, primitive Indians living close to nature. These were people who had little need for metals with monetary value. Before anyone could make money by establishing a colony in the New World, a system of long-term economic investment was needed. But in those days, there were no such models or institutions – no real business methods – for making investments now that would start paying off maybe 10 or 20 years after an initial investment.

Thus, there was much interest was in finding the fabled Northwest Passage, which everyone hoped would mean a quick seaway to the riches of the China trade. Of course, no one knew if a Northwest Passage existed, but it was reasonable to think that such a sea route might be found – and so one of history’s greatest, centuries-long searches began.

Columbus made only a cursory stab at exploring the northern coasts of the Americas. After his discoveries in the south, he and his patron country of Spain turned all their interests to engorging themselves on the gold of Central and South America.

John Cabot

The next direct attempt to find the Northwest Passage was made by Italian explorer John Cabot, (whose real name was Giovanni Caboto). Despite him being Italian, the English bankrolled his mission to find the Northwest Passage, and he sailed under the British flag. In short, Cabot made three trips across the Atlantic, but the details of what he actually found are sketchy. Most historians think he died in 1499 on his third trip to America, although there are some reports claiming that he actually returned to England. What is known is that an associate of Cabot’s, a man by the name of William Weston, made a subsequent trip and actually sailed up the Hudson Strait in 1500. This was the first significant attempt to penetrate a waterway that might be the Northwest Passage.

Martin Frobisher

The next notable attempt to find the Northwest Passage was made by another English seaman, Martin Frobisher. He made trips in 1576 and 1578. His journey quickly devolved into a search for gold, however, and he made no serious attempts at finding a direct passage to China. English sailor John Davis made exploratory voyages to find the Northwest Passage in 1585, 1586 and 1587, but he also made no real progress, although he did attain Cumberland Sound off Baffin Island.

Henry Hudson

The man who really moved the search for the Northwest Passage forward was Henry Hudson. His famous attempt occurred in the years 1610-11. After much sailing around in the northern coastal regions of eastern Canada, there was tremendous excitement when Hudson discovered the straight that now bears his name, the Hudson Straight, which is at the northern tip of Labrador. Hudson pressed forward in the frigid waters until his ship became trapped in the ice at James Bay.

Hudson and his crew survived a brutal and frigid winter. When the ice began to melt in the spring of 1611, Captain Hudson wanted to keep sailing west, but his crew was fed up. They organized a mutiny, dumped Hudson, his teenage son, and six loyal men on a small boat, and cast them off to fend for themselves. They disappeared into the wilderness and were never heard from again.

Hudson had penetrated deep into Canada. The vast Hudson Bay north of present day Manitoba, Canada still bears his name.

Robert Cavelier

Other attempts at finding the Northwest Passage took a different approach. For example, the French sailors René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle in 1682 sailed north up the Mississippi River and eventually gained access to Lake Superior. They hoped that the Great Lakes might provide a direct route to across the continent. This obviously met with failure.

Roald Amundsen

It would take almost four centuries until a true Northwest Passage was found and navigated. The credit for being the first to navigate the Northwest Passage went to the amazing Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole, and the first to reach both the North and South Poles.

Amundsen finally made the icy trip on his ship, the Gjøa, a 47-ton steel seal-hunting ship. This quest established the first true route of the Northwest Passage in a journey that started in 1903 and ended in 1906 — more than 400 years after the first attempt by Christopher Columbus.


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Despite the reported widespread thinning of Arctic ice, even the Swedish icebreaker Oden had trouble negotiating the Northwest Passage when it muscled through in mid-July 2005.

Alternate passages

Besides, two other ways through the Arctic will likely become viable before the Northwest Passage does. One is the Northeast Passage, the one that hugs the northern coastline of Eurasia. More commonly referred to as the Northern Sea Route, this waterway provides a more straightforward path than the labyrinthine Canadian archipelago allows rather than Canada's thicket of islands, Russia's route has just several straits for ships to pass through. And its summertime ice conditions are often better. The Northern Sea Route is already open up to eight weeks a year, with at least a million and half tons of shipping going through.

The other Arctic sea route that will likely open before the Northwest Passage is one straight over the top of the world. "What if there was some sort of international icebreaking fleet, and we broke a shortcut like an E-Z Pass lane right over the North Pole?" says Scott Borgerson, a foreign policy expert at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. "You would already save 5,000 miles by going over Eurasia or North America, but if you can save 8,000 miles—that would be an interesting idea." And not a pie-in-the-sky one. "Before the Northwest Passage itself becomes a regular shipping route, I expect that there will be a regular shipping route from Murmansk to Tokyo right across the North Pole," says Falkingham, one of several experts who mentioned this likelihood.

Even a shipping route straight across the North Pole is more likely to happen in this century than a route through the Northwest Passage, with its scatter of ice-choked islands.

Missing pieces

Such a route might avoid another problem with using the Northwest Passage: disputed ownership. Canada deems the passageway its internal waters, while the United States and European Union consider it international. "Unless we conquer this political problem, it's probably not worth it," says Garrett Brass, executive director of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission in Washington. "The Northern Sea Route is shorter and quicker and easier to use."

Moreover, much of the Arctic Ocean, including long stretches of the Northwest Passage, remains poorly charted—another strike against any near-term viability of the passage for shipping. For parts of the crossing today, ship captains must rely on charts made during searches for the lost Franklin expedition in the mid-1800s, and major new subsurface features turn up regularly. "Our very first trip up there we found a seamount that rose from 4,000 meters up to less than 900 meters, and all the existing charts showed nothing there at all," says Larry Mayer, director of the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping at the University of New Hampshire. The Center is conducting undersea mapping for the U.S. along the western portion of the Northwest Passage off Alaska, in part to help resolve international boundary issues.

Resources to support shipping in the passage are also nonexistent. "There's the ice situation, but there are also a lot of other issues around shipping, such as aids to navigation, search and rescue, what happens if you have a mechanical breakdown—there's just no infrastructure there to assist them," Falkingham says.

While ice along the Northwest Passage isn't likely to melt sufficiently for shipping anytime soon, specialists believe, it is melting enough to seriously impact Arctic wildlife, including polar bears, which rely on sea ice as a platform for hunting.

And yet.

Despite all the obstacles, one wild card might speed efforts to open up the Northwest Passage sooner rather than later: fossil fuel. With supplies dwindling worldwide and prices soaring to record levels, known and suspected fields of oil and natural gas beneath the Arctic are becoming increasingly coveted. How the energy situation plays out in coming decades may very well determine how soon ships begin plying the Northwest Passage.

For this reason—as well as existing and potential threats to Arctic wildlife, ecosystems, and Inuit residents arising out of both the melting and the burgeoning international interest in the Arctic—many experts feel it's not too early to start readying ourselves for a working passage.


These Maps Show the Epic Quest for a Northwest Passage

Once just a figment of the imagination, a navigable sea route through the Arctic is becoming reality due to climate change.

It had to be there: an ocean at the top of the world. The ancient Greeks drew it on their maps, and for centuries, the rest of Europe did too.

Beginning in the 1500s, countless men died trying to find it, hoping for a maritime shortcut across the Arctic that would open up new trade routes to Asia. Now, thanks to a warming planet, the long-sought Northwest Passage actually exists … at least for part of the year.

A new exhibit at the Osher Map Library at the University of Southern Maine chronicles this storied quest through centuries of treacherous exploration to the increasingly open Arctic waters of today (the maps in this post come from the exhibit).

The idea of a northern ocean passage dates back at least to the second century A.D. Ptolemy and the ancient Greeks believed that Earth had four habitable zones balanced by two uninhabitable frigid zones—often thought to be water—at the top and bottom of the globe. But it wasn’t until the early 16th century, after the voyages of Columbus, that the idea of a Northwest Passage really took hold in the popular imagination of Europeans, says Ian Fowler, the library’s director. Columbus, after all, had sailed west looking for a sea route to the East. Instead, he found a continent blocking the way. The Northwest Passage would be a way around this continent.

“After the Spanish and Portuguese took control of the trade routes in the south, along the coasts of Africa and South America, it once again becomes a very popular idea as a way for the Dutch and the French and the English to get access to the East and the riches they believed to be there,” Fowler says.

Maps from this period are filled with the wild imaginings and wishful thinking of mapmakers, from nonexistent bays and islands to sea monsters (you can see some of these figments of the imagination in the gallery at the top of this post).

There was also a lot of gamesmanship and outright deception in the maps. The map above comes from a book published in 1558 to describe the travels of two Venetian brothers in 1380. The story is almost certainly bogus, Fowler says, made up in an attempt to retroactively claim the discovery of the New World for Venice. Even so, the map was widely copied and may have led some expeditions astray. “It’s dangerous,” Fowler says. “It shows Greenland connected to Europe, which is obviously not true. South of Iceland, there’s a number of fictitious islands. And to the west of Greenland there’s a nice open sea, which at this time would have been unnavigable because of pack ice.”

Early explorers also occasionally played fast and loose with the facts. The Englishman Martin Frobisher made three voyages in search of the Northwest Passage in the late 1500s. He didn’t find it. “He discovered some straits, pretended to find a lot more,” Fowler says. On one trip, he returned to England with tons of what he claimed was gold-containing ore. It was enough to convince his backers to fund another trip, but it ultimately turned out to be pyrite—fool's gold.

With time, and additional exploration, the maps got better. The map below, published in Russia in 1784, was the first to show details gleaned from a large and highly organized survey of the Arctic coast of Siberia. It depicts a possible Northwest Passage: On the far right side, "R. de l'Quest” connects Hudson Bay to the Pacific Ocean. Notice the level of detail on the Asian side of the Pacific compared to the North American side—the situation is reversed in a map published the same year based on Captain James Cook’s exploration of the coast of Alaska (see slide nine in the gallery above).

Perhaps the most famous attempt to find the Northwest Passage was the expedition led by Sir John Franklin in 1845. Franklin was an officer in the British Navy who had led two previous expeditions to the Arctic. But this time the expedition didn’t return on schedule, and Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane, began pressing the British government to send a search party, which they did in 1848. The search grew to include more ships over the coming years, and newspaper reports on the hunt for the missing expedition gripped the British public.

Ultimately, though, all the searchers found were several graves of men who’d died early on and a few scattered notes and other relics. The two boats in the expedition had become trapped in ice, and all 129 men, including Franklin, perished. The second of his two boats, the H.M.S. Terror, was finally located only a few weeks ago.

Unbeknownst to Franklin and other explorers, their expeditions coincided with what scientists call the Little Ice Age, a period of several centuries of unusual cold in the Arctic. As temperatures began to climb toward the end of the 19th century, the long-sought Northwest Passage finally opened up.

The Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen completed the first journey entirely by boat through the Northwest Passage in 1906. It took three years and two winters on the ice.

More recently, it’s been getting easier. As polar ice has melted, the route has become more accessible. Last month a cruise ship carrying 1,700 people became the first passenger liner to complete the passage. The melting of Arctic sea ice has raised the possibility of new trade routes and energy production, as well as the potential for territorial conflicts and environmental damage to a relatively untouched part of the Earth.

For better or worse, a new chapter in the storied history of the Arctic is just beginning.


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A Russian passenger ferry and tanker ship each became the first of its kind to successfully navigate the passage&rsquos entire length.

Fueled by the ice power of the new National Geographic Endurance, we&rsquoll follow in the footsteps of these legendary explorers, navigating the historic route to make landfall at Novaya Zemlya, Franz Josef Land, Wrangel Island, and other remote destinations.

Join us in 2020 aboard National Geographic Endurance for an unforgettable voyage through the Northeast Passage.


A history of cruises through the Northwest Passage

The first cruise through the Northwest Passage took place more than 30 years ago, in 1984, when pioneering adventure company Lindblad sent an ice-strengthened vessel across the waterway on an epic, 43-day voyage. Still, it hasn't been until recent years that tourist-carrying ships began arriving regularly in the region.

About half a dozen vessels now carry paying passengers into the Northwest Passage each year, some multiple times. Most are small, expedition-style cruise ships that specialize in off-the-beaten-path travel, and for the most part, they only sail partial transits of the route. Full transits by tourist-carrying ships remain relatively rare. As of this summer, fewer than a dozen tourist vessels had traveled the entire length of the waterway at least once. Several have made the journey multiple times. Milestones in Northwest Passage cruising:

1984: The 104-passenger Lindblad Explorer becomes the first tourist vessel to make a complete transit as part of a 43-day voyage from New York to Yokohama, Japan.

1985: Just a year after Lindblad Explorer's groundbreaking voyage, Society Expeditions' ice-strengthened, 137-passenger World Discoverer becomes the second tourist-carrying vessel to navigate the waterway.

1992: Kapitan Khlebnikov, a Russian icebreaker, takes paying passengers along as it travels through the passage for the first time. As of 2015, the vessel had made 17 transits of the waterway -- the most of any ship. Not all of the trips included paying passengers.

1994: The 175-passenger Hanseatic, an ice-strengthened expedition ship operated by German line Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, travels through the Northwest Passage for the first time. Over the next two decades, it will complete another 10 transits, setting a record for a ship of its kind.

2003: Hapag-Lloyd Cruises' ice-strengthened, 155-passenger Bremen makes a complete transit for the first time under that name. It had sailed the waterway twice in the 1990s as the Frontier Spirit. It will go on to complete five more transits over the next decade.

Cruising to adventure in the fabled Northwest Passage

2012: The World, a cruise ship-like vessel filled with 165 multi-million dollar residences, becomes the largest passenger ship ever to makes a complete transit.

2013: The 264-passenger Le Soleal, an upscale expedition ship operated by French line Ponant, becomes the first of three Ponant vessels to complete a transit -- a record for a single line.

2014: The 132-passenger Silver Explorer, an expedition ship operated by luxury line Silversea, completes a transit.

2016: Luxury line Crystal Cruises' 1,070-passenger Crystal Serenity becomes the largest cruise ship ever to sail the passage.


Contemporary issues

Opening the Northwest Passage to regular commercial ocean traffic would have worldwide economic significance in natural resources, transportation, and trade relations between countries. The greatest impact would be on the United States and Canada, but effects could be felt from the Persian Gulf to Panama and from Chile to Scandinavia. But competitive developments, governmental policies, and many complex economic issues are likely to determine how soon, and how much, such a route would be used. The cost of strengthening ships against ice and the probable high insurance rates for vessels used in Arctic service, however, may diminish the use of the Northwest Passage as a trade route. But it would cut the distance between London and Tokyo, for example, to less than 8,000 miles (12,870 km) from the 14,670-mile (23,600-km) route around Africa made necessary when the Suez Canal was shut down (1967–75). The Northwest Passage also might permit the use of larger vessels than are allowed by the dimensions of the Panama and Suez canals—despite improvements to both waterways in the early 21st century. Icebreaking techniques learned in the Northwest Passage could be applied in other ice-locked waters from the Great Lakes to the Baltic Sea, including Russia’s Northern Sea Route with its vast Siberian oil fields. Canada has held sovereignty over the Arctic Archipelago since 1880, but some countries, including the United States, have contended that much of the Northwest Passage is in international waters. Canada has indicated that it would welcome international commerce over the route, subject to pollution-control regulations.

Since about 2000 the Arctic climate has changed significantly, brought on by global warming, with the consequence that in most years summer sea-ice coverage has declined to record minimums. As a result, there were periods of time in late summer when the Northwest Passage was wholly or largely ice free. With increased access, more icebreakers and government and research vessels traveled to and through the passage.

In addition, an increasing number of adventurers began making the transit in smaller watercraft, but the passage also became more attractive to commercial interests. A cruise ship had first traversed the passage in 1984, and in the early 21st century, the number of such voyages increased steadily. The first transit of the passage by a large bulk carrier occurred in 2013 when the Nordic Orion, with a load of coal and escorted by icebreakers, sailed from Vancouver, enroute to Finland. The following year a cargo ship, the Nunavik, completed the journey without an icebreaker escort.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica This article was most recently revised and updated by Adam Augustyn, Managing Editor, Reference Content.


Breaking the Ice: The Early History of the Northwest Passage

Voyages in the Arctic seas, from 1821 to 1825, for the discovery of a north-west passage to the Pacific Ocean. Dublin, Printed by R. Napper, 1830.

The history of the Northwest Passage begins much earlier than the famous Franklin Expeditions. Our exhibit describes significant events prior to Franklin’s travels in the following three collections:

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the feasibility of a journey to the Arctic, many explorers risked their lives time and time again in hopes of discovering the Northwest Passage. Motivated by political pressures and economic incentives, explorers, such as Captain Thomas James, Captain William Parry and Sir John Ross, endured this dangerous voyage. Their observations of the arctic landscape and documentations of their expeditions provided invaluable information that supported the practicability of the Northwest Passage. For example, Captain Parry’s observations regarding weather and the arctic coastline supplemented the information gathered by Sir John Ross and his expedition, making the Northwest Passage appear attainable. Captain Franklin’s early land expeditions further complemented these observations he surveyed the northern Canadian coastline and explored the possibility of finding a land-based route through the Arctic. As a result of these successes, the British Parliament offered hefty rewards to those who could discover the passage. Such insentives led to a series of government funded expeditions which culminated with Franklin’s famed last voyage in 1846.

There are several diverse documents that collectively recount the history of the search for the Northwest Passage before Franklin’s final expedition. Drawing upon first-hand accounts of voyages, legal documents, pamphlets, maps, and even fictitious novels, we delve into the initial perceptions surrounding the feasibility of the arctic journey. We conclude with a chronological exploration into the attempts of previous explorers to discover the elusive and dangerous Northwest Passage.


Ship found in Arctic 168 years after doomed Northwest Passage attempt

The long-lost ship of British polar explorer Sir John Franklin, HMS Terror, has been found in pristine condition at the bottom of an Arctic bay, researchers have said, in a discovery that challenges the accepted history behind one of polar exploration’s deepest mysteries.

HMS Terror and Franklin’s flagship, HMS Erebus, were abandoned in heavy sea ice far to the north of the eventual wreck site in 1848, during the Royal Navy explorer’s doomed attempt to complete the Northwest Passage.

All 129 men on the Franklin expedition died, in the worst disaster to hit Britain’s Royal Navy in its long history of polar exploration. Search parties continued to look for the ships for 11 years after they disappeared, but found no trace, and the fate of the missing men remained an enigma that tantalised generations of historians, archaeologists and adventurers.

Now that mystery seems to have been solved by a combination of intrepid exploration – and an improbable tip from an Inuk crewmember.

On Sunday, a team from the charitable Arctic Research Foundation manoeuvred a small, remotely operated vehicle through an open hatch and into the ship to capture stunning images that give insight into life aboard the vessel close to 170 years ago.

“We have successfully entered the mess hall, worked our way into a few cabins and found the food storage room with plates and one can on the shelves,” Adrian Schimnowski, the foundation’s operations director, told the Guardian by email from the research vessel Martin Bergmann.

“We spotted two wine bottles, tables and empty shelving. Found a desk with open drawers with something in the back corner of the drawer.”

The well-preserved wreck matches the Terror in several key aspects, but it lies 60 miles (96km) south of where experts have long believed the ship was crushed by ice, and the discovery may force historians to rewrite a chapter in the history of exploration.

The 10-member Bergmann crew found the massive shipwreck, with her three masts broken but still standing, almost all hatches closed and everything stowed, in the middle of King William Island’s uncharted Terror Bay on 3 September.

The bell of HMS Terror on the deck of the sunken vessel. Photograph: Arctic Research Foundation

After finding nothing in an early morning search, the research vessel was leaving the bay when a grainy digital silhouette emerged from the depths on the sounder display on the bridge of the Bergmann.

“Everyone was up in the wheelhouse by that point in awe, really,” said Daniel McIsaac, 23, who was at the helm when the research vessel steamed straight over the sunken wreck.

Since, then, the discovery team has spent more than a week quietly gathering images of the vessel and comparing them with the Terror’s 19th century builders’ plans, which match key elements of the sunken vessel.

At first, the Terror seemed to be listing at about 45 degrees to starboard on the seabed. But on the third dive with a remotely operated vehicle, “we noticed the wreck is sitting level on the sea bed floor not at a list - which means the boat sank gently to the bottom,” Schimnowski said Monday.

About 24 metres (80ft) down, the wreck is in perfect condition, with metal sheeting that reinforced the hull against sea ice clearly visible amid swaying kelp.

A long, heavy rope line running through a hole in the ship’s deck suggests an anchor line may have been deployed before the Terror went down.

Crew of the HMS Terror, stuck in the ice and commanded by the British admiral George Back (1796-1878), salvaging lifeboats and provisions east of the Frozen Strait, during the Frozen Strait Expedition, 1836-1837. Yellowknife, Prince Of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. Photograph: De Agostini/Getty Images

If true, that sets up the tantalising possibility that British sailors re-manned the vessel after she was abandoned at the top of Victoria Strait in a desperate attempt to escape south.

One crucial detail in the identification of the ship is a wide exhaust pipe rising above the outer deck.

It is in the precise location where a smokestack rose from the locomotive engine which was installed in the Terror’s belly to power the ship’s propeller through closing sea ice, said Schimnowski in a phone interview.

The ship’s bell lies on its side on the deck, close to where the sailor on watch would have have swung the clapper to mark time.

An image from the deck of the wreck of HMS Terror as it lies on the seabed. Photograph: Arctic Research Foundation

And the majestic bowsprit, six metres (20ft) long, still points straight out from the bow as it did when the crew tried to navigate through treacherous ice that eventually trapped Erebus and Terror on 12 September 1846.

The wreck is in such good condition that glass panes are still in three of four tall windows in the stern cabin where the ship’s commander, Captain Francis Crozier, slept and worked, Schimnowski added.

“This vessel looks like it was buttoned down tight for winter and it sank,” he said. “Everything was shut. Even the windows are still intact. If you could lift this boat out of the water, and pump the water out, it would probably float.”

The Arctic Research Foundation was set up by Jim Balsillie, a Canadian tech tycoon and philanthropist, who co-founded Research in Motion, creator of the Blackberry.

Balsillie, who also played a key role in planning the expedition, proposed a theory to explain why it seems both Terror and Erebus sank far south of where they were first abandoned.

“This discovery changes history,” he told the Guardian. “Given the location of the find [in Terror Bay] and the state of the wreck, it’s almost certain that HMS Terror was operationally closed down by the remaining crew who then re-boarded HMS Erebus and sailed south where they met their ultimate tragic fate.”

The 21st-century search for Franklin’s expedition was launched by Canadian former prime minister Stephen Harper as part of a broader plan to assert Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic and promote development of its resources – including vast reserves of oil and natural gas, which will be easier to exploit as the Arctic warms and sea ice disappears.

Parks Canada underwater archeologists have led the mission since it began in 2008. Now they must confirm the wreck is Terror, either by examining the foundation’s images or visiting the site themselves. With the first winter snow already falling in the High Arctic, Terror Bay will soon be encased in thick sea ice.

The latest discovery was made two years and a day after Canadian marine archeologists found the wreck of Erebus in the same area of eastern Queen Maud gulf where Inuit oral history had long said a large wooden ship sank.

The same stories described startled Inuit stumbling upon a large dead man in a dark room on the vessel, with a big smile. Experts have suggested that may have been a rictus smile, or evidence that the man had suffered from scurvy.

Parks Canada archeologists found Erebus standing in just 11 meters of ocean. Sea ice had taken a large bite out her stern, and more than a century of storm-driven waves had scattered a trove of artifacts around the site.

So far, archaeologists have brought up the bell from Franklin’s flagship, a cannon, ceramic plate and other objects.

Inuit knowledge was also central to finding the Terror Bay wreck, but in a more mysterious way. Crewman Sammy Kogvik, 49, of Gjoa Haven, had been on the Bergmann for only a day when, chatting with Schimnowski on the bridge, he told a bizarre story.

The double-wheeled helm of HMS Terror. Photograph: Arctic Research Foundation

About six years ago, Kogvik said, he and a hunting buddy were headed on snowmobiles to fish in a lake when they spotted a large piece of wood, which looked like a mast, sticking out of the sea ice covering Terror Bay.

In a phone interview, Kogvik said he stopped that day to get a few snapshots of himself hugging the wooden object, only to discover when he got home that the camera had fallen out his pocket.

Kogvik resolved to keep the encounter secret, fearing the missing camera was an omen of bad spirits, which generations of Inuit have believed began to wander King William Island after Franklin and his men perished.

When Schimnowski heard Kogvik’s story, he didn’t dismiss it, as Inuit testimony has been so often during the long search for Franklin’s ships.

Instead, the Bergmann’s crew agreed to make a detour for Terror Bay on their way to join the main search group aboard the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier and the Royal Canadian Navy’s HMCS Shawinigan, at the north end of Victoria Strait.

That is where the only known record of the Franklin expedition provided coordinates for what experts now call the point of abandonment.

A scrawled note dated 25 April 1848, and concealed in a stone cairn at Victory Point on northern King William Island, said Erebus and Terror had been abandoned three days earlier, stuck in sea ice.

Crozier was in command of “the officers and crews, consisting of 105 souls”, because Franklin had died on 11 June 1847, the note continued, “and the total loss by deaths in the expedition has been to this date 9 officers and 15 men”.

Crozier and Captain James Fitzjames signed the note, which had what seemed a hurried postscript, scrawled upside down in the top right corner: “and start on to-morrow 26th for Back’s Fish River”.

Survivors apparently hoped to follow the river – now known as Back river – south to safety at a Hudson’s Bay Company fur trading outpost.

None made it, and for generations, the accepted historical narrative has described a brutal death march as the Royal Navy mariners tried to walk out of the Arctic, dying along the way.

Now Franklin experts will have to debate whether at least some of the dying sailors instead mustered incredible strength, fighting off hunger, disease and frostbite, in a desperate attempt to sail home.


Watch the video: ΤΟ ΒΟΡΕΙΟΔΥΤΙΚΟ ΠΕΡΑΣΜΑ (September 2022).

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