Icebound no more: Is Northwest Passage a game-changer?

Melting sea ice makes it possible for many more ships to cross Northwest Passage without help of an icebreaker.

Cambridge Bay, Canada – It was a classic seaside moment: the sinking sun turns the dark waters of Cambridge Bay subtle shades of pink and gold. An elegant 18-metre yacht, Celebrate, is pulling away from the wharf and sailing off into towards the sunset.

But Captain Charlie Simon and his crew are not heading out to a tropical anchorage in Tahiti, or the Caribbean. They’re bound for the Bering Strait and distant Nome, Alaska, where they’ll celebrate a successful transit of the Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. They had set out from Greenland two months earlier.


Before 2007, the first year that sea ice melted entirely from these waters in late summer, it wouldn’t have been possible to do this without a sturdy coastguard icebreaker clearing the way.

Now Captain Charlie is one of dozens of yachtsmen to make a journey that increasingly beckons adventurers like him, as well as cruise lines and commercial shipping companies.

“We had lay in so much food and fuel,” Captain Charlie told me before he gave the order to sail away.

“There’s nothing in that passage, no coastguard, no ports where you can re-supply, and you still have to watch for ice jams and polar bears.”

Over the past 11 years, an estimated 300 vessels have done what Celebrate did in 2017. Dozens of them were passenger liners and in future, many will be cargo ships.

Like Captain Charlie, they’ll be braving what are uncharted, unprotected waters. 

“The Arctic is an incredibly large remote extreme regions,” says professor Michael Byers of the University of British Columbia.

“It’s a hazardous place to navigate at the best of times, and the remoteness means that there’s no search and rescue located anywhere close to the NW passage.”

Over the past 11 years, dozens of passenger liners have crossed the Northwest Passage [Al Jazeera]
Over the past 11 years, dozens of passenger liners have crossed the Northwest Passage [Al Jazeera]

Protecting the seas

Canada claims these waters but so far has taken few concrete steps to make them safer, or to prepare for toxic spills like the wreck of the Exxon Valdez in Alaska in 1989. Up to 40 million litres of thick, greasy crude oil spilled into Prince William Sound, and the clean up still is not complete. 

“Arctic communities are some of least prepared on the planet for a spill,” says Andrew Dumbrille, a shipping expert with the World Wildlife Fund of Canada.

“These people, the indigenous Inuit people, they’ll be the first responders, and their waters will be hardest hit. They need to be a core of making sure we’re ready for a toxic event in the north.”

In the past, Canada rarely consulted the indigenous people of the North, the Inuit. But now after a land claim agreement in the 1990s, the Inuit have a lot more authority. They have a say in how outsiders use their land, waters and ice.

That’s why Aluki Kotierk president of the northern-based Nunavut Tunngavik organisation, thinks her peoples’ voices will be listened as the cruise liners and cargo ships head their way.

“We have the knowledge of the land, the water,” Kotierk says, “We use the land, the wildlife, and we have for millennia. It’s good policy for Inuit to lead the way on this. We must.”

Back at the wharf in Cambridge Bay, Captain Charlie’s boat is just a dot on a darkening horizon. A cruise liner is bobbing at anchor, preparing to sail for Greenland.

Local people can only hope these new arrivals will bring more than environment pressures and a reminder that an ancient, icy way of life is profoundly changing.

Source: Al Jazeera