Northwest Passage Ice Break Up

As the ice parts for passage through the Laptev Sea, on the other side of the Arctic, the Northwest Passage continues to lure and fascinate – me as well as those hoping to transit the passage this year (Previous post on the NWP). So, I’ve been reading up about Franklin and Amundsen as well as following some of the current expeditions.

Figure 1. Northwest Passage Routes (Source http://www.athropolis.com) 1. TYPICAL NORTHWEST PASSAGE ROUTE (Black) 2. ROALD AMUNDSEN: First Navigation by Ship (White) 3. ST. ROCH: First West-East Crossing (Green) 4. ST. ROCH: Northern Deep-Water Route (Yellow) 5. FRANKLIN EXPEDITION: Attempt (Dark Red) 6. SIR WILLIAM EDWARD PARRY: Attempt (Purple) 7. ROBERT McCLURE: Proved route existed (Orange)

I found an excellent UK documentary In Search of the Northwest Passage first shown in March 2005 that pieces together what happened to Franklin and recounts Amundsen’s fascinating story and eventual success. At a hour an forty minutes it is long but well worth watching (it can be viewed outside of the UK via 4OD on Youtube here).  There is evidence of some of Franklin’s men having survived for many years, and Amundsen, who took three years to complete the passage, nonetheless learned a lot of the Inuit survival skills which were key to his success in beating Scott to the South Pole. Fascinating! In addition, the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) archive has a collection of 10 radio and 11 video clips available here concerned with research and exploration of the area.

Figure 2. Map of Nunavit (source: http://geology.com/canada/nunavut.shtml)

One of the things I wondered while peering at maps of the area was why no-one, especially the smaller yachts in recent times, tries the passage to the south of Baffin Island through Foxe Basin and the Fury and Hecla Strait into the Gulf of Boothia (Figure 2).  The strait, to the north of the Melville Peninsula does look very narrow. I found an answer with a fabulous IR satellite photo (Figure 3). Hmm – land is cold, water is warm between ice cracks; thicker ice is cooler than thin ice. Just as you would expect.

Figure 3. Foxe Basin and the southern portion of Baffin Island (Canada) - a nighttime thermal image of the Arctic. The ice is whitish blue in colour and covers the Foxe Basin (in the centre-right of the image); the land (covered by snow) appears to be deep blue or black in colour. (Source: European Space Agency)

From the European Space Agency web site:

Located north of Hudson Bay between the Melville Peninsula and the large Baffin Island, Foxe Basin is a broad depression whose depth varies between 100 and 400 metres. The island with the Basin at the top of the image is Prince Charles Island, with Southampton Island at image bottom.

The Basin remains ice-covered for most of the year, with landfast ice dominating in the north and pack ice covering the deeper southern waters. Foxe Basin is rarely ice free until September, with open pack ice common throughout the summer.

The current ice map (Figure 4) shows Foxe Basin (at the bottom of the map) and the strait connecting with the Gulf of Boothia to be relatively free of ice this summer, but the Gulf of Boothia itself and Prince Regent Inlet still have a high concentration of ice in parts – 9-10/10ths as indicated by the red colouration.

Figure 4. Ice Concentration Map for the Eastern Canadian Arctic. (Source: Canadian Ice Service)

Figure 5. Ice Concentration Map for the Western Canadian Arctic. (Source: Canadian Ice Service)

Further west (Figure 5) the ice map shows that the western approaches are quite clear, as is the channel between Banks Island and Victoria Island. So the northern route looks passable, but the southern route looks more problematic and is quite choked around Gjoa Haven.

2010 is a low ice year and there is much talk of global warming and future ice-free summers in the Arctic. I have a bit of analysis in preparation for another post on that soon.

One theme comes through very strongly in most of the stories about the passage; that of fortune. And it is not a case of “fortune favours the brave” (or the well prepared).  More of being in the right (or wrong) place at a point in time.  The Franklin expedition it seems suffered many misfortunes. From the blog of one of the early successful yachts Norwegian Blue:

[There were] “seven attempts at the NWP in 2003, ‘Vagabond’ & ‘Norwegian Blue’ were the only two yachts to successfully complete their transit. Both were fortunate enough to have been in the right place for the one day of the year the ice opened in Larsen Sound & Franklin Strait, traditionally the most difficult part of the NWP.”

Lastly my favourite Arctic Sailor, Capt Tommy Cook, has decided that discretion is the better part of valour and is heading South again.  Having resourcefully repaired an engine problem, he reached 62° 33′ 50.2″ N ~ 063° 43′ 119″ W, but he was justifiably spooked by iceberg encounters in the fog and the reality of interminable berg-watch without crew mates to spell him:

I’ve come to the doorway of the Northwest Passage and not even made it up the steps. Doesn’t matter, it has given me my White Dawn adventure, and I’m sick of it! Let the Sons of Norway* made their historic voyage. It’s fitting. Let them prove the Corsair -31 a proper vessel for the Northwest Passage. I have nothing to prove. Not to myself or to anyone. After hours of staring into the unknown I see the fate of Franklin, the misery of Amundsen, the disappointment of those who tried and failed and those that tried and died. I’ve seen enough ice to last a lifetime. *Børge Ousland and Crew.

I’ll leave you with a bit more of Capt. Tommy’s philosophical musing from this posting (this was a reminiscence of an earlier voyage). I do hope he continues sailing and blogging in warmer climes. Enjoy!

Oh, ye landsman, what do you ever do that gives such weight to the shoulders as a trick at the wheel, in the fog, in the wind, in the night. There is no more precious cargo than young ones sleeping in trust below while you make way for port. Nine hours of looking, listening, doubting, confirming, checking, correcting, and repeating. To be captain of anything, sail boat, ocean liner, battle ship or airplane is to know the terrible weight of responsibility that can not, must not slip from one’s shoulders for a moment. One of my favorite captains that I served under took a nap every afternoon underway while the rest of the ship worked. Why? As he said, because he never knew when he would be needed to be up all night long.

So think long and hard before you set you sights on that lofty title “Captain” as I once did in my youth. It comes with a price.

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One Response to Northwest Passage Ice Break Up

  1. properties24 says:

    Thanks for the intreseting artical. [Reply. Thanks – you’re welcome!]

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