Cruising the Northwest Passage

Would you? I would. I’d jump at the chance.  Lottery win required first probably (unless one of those mythical cheques from Big Oil turns up…).   Several companies now offer such cruises and report full bookings (and by the way I used an image from Adventure Canada’s promotional video because there wasn’t a single mention of climate change or global warming).  Somehow this unspoilt wilderness feels sacrosanct and perhaps it would feel strange being there in a cruise ship, in comfort, if not luxury.

Figure 1. Shot from Adventure Canada promotional video (click for link)

Many of these ships are former Soviet icebreakers. Just as well: the Clipper Adventurer grounded on uncharted rocks at the end of August and was only refloated a few days ago.  A similar fate befell the fuel tanker MV Nanny which sat on a sandbar for two weeks and was refloated on 15th September after much of her diesel cargo was transferred to another ship.  A sister ship also ran aground at the beginning of August.  These incidents show the challenge of supply to remote Arctic communities and the risks to any ships venturing into this area which is still not fully charted.  One company commented:

“The charts are reliable. The problem is that you have to be able to stay within [the charted parts of channels]; it’s very narrow.  The charts are not complete in a sense that if you are not able to stay within, for whatever reason, you might find yourself very easily in uncharted waters.”

Meanwhile the Northern Passage and Peter 1, the two yachts circumnavigating the pole this summer, have made it to Cambridge Bay. They’ve probably been more hampered by adverse winds than ice.  Indeed they were fortunate that winds pushed the ice off the Russian coast and did not hold them up badly there.  They should now make it though the Northwest Passage before the freeze takes hold, however the Northern Passage is very dependent on wind, having only a small outboard motor for manoeuvering in harbours, whereas the larger Peter 1 has an auxiliary engine and plenty of fuel storage.

One of this year’s transits was rapid –  just over 20 days.  I was actually a bit shocked when I first encountered the Bear Grylls ‘expedition’.  It was the thought of them roaring up though the passage at up to 40 knots with 900hp of engines (using biofuel) that did it for me, but then I mused that they’d probably have to take it easy with ice around, and although the Arctic is at its most photogenic in calm weather that’s not the norm up there, even in Summer.  Still they must have pushed on at a fair rate to complete the 1700 nautical miles (~2000 miles) as quickly as they did.

I gather they were filming also, since the trip was about raising awareness of climate change, and will almost certainly be aired somewhere on television in Grylls inimitable style.  Actually they do have some pretty exciting stuff, including towing a row-boat clear of pack ice (see their diary entry for 5th Sept) and discovery of significant remains that they thought may be related to the ill-fated Franklin Expedition (see diary entries 2-4 Sept).

It occurred to me that Amundsen’s first transit of the Northwest Passage took 3 years, and it is almost 60 years since the St Roch (1944) was the first to do it in a single season.  The current flurry of yachts and other ships venturing into the area is as much to do with modern technology as is it about reductions in ice. The website of Swedish yacht Ariel IV has a good compilation of transits up to 2008 which I used to plot the graph below.


Figure 2. Vessels successful in transit of the Northwest Passage since 1970

When you compare this to the average ice in the Passage (below Fig. 3 May-Sept; Fig 4. mid-Aug-mid-Sept) this becomes clear: there were increasing numbers of transits despite ‘normal’ ice years (“All vessels” also includes cargo vessels, tugs and cruise ships).

Figure 3. Ice Coverage in the Northwest Passage (May-Sept) 1968-2010 (Source: Canadian Ice Service)

Figure 4. Ice Coverage in the Northwest Passage (mid-Aug-mid-Sept) 1968-2010 (Source: Canadian Ice Service)

We shouldn’t blame people for either wanting to see or wanting to make use of the Northwest Passage, but it is premature to think we can guarantee its use every year.  We can only wait and see what happens.

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4 Responses to Cruising the Northwest Passage

  1. Pascvaks says:

    Why do people lather gobs of goo on their bodies and try to swim the Channel? Why do they shoot themselves across the Grand Canyon in a car with rockets and hope they make it? Why do they climb K-2 or anyother mountain? Why do they jump out of perfectly good airplanes? Why do they want to throw our economy and life savings away, and the World Economy into a tailspin to go crashing into the Earth just now, at the beginning of the next Ice Age? The answer my friend is blowing in the wind between someone’s ears. There’s no explaining people. They can be the most intelligent beings on the planet or the dumbest. The hard part, is telling who’s who.

  2. E.M.Smith says:

    I’ve often wondered how much the increasing use of ice breakers makes the arctic ice more mobile, so more able for wind to blow around.

    Seems to me that a grounded ice sheet would tend to stay put much better than one where an Ice Breaker just cut a 200 mile swath between it and shore.

    I have to think there is some impact on ‘extent’ from that.

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