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Paul
Posted on Sunday, September 17, 2000 - 03:37 pm:   

Ice retreats to open North-west Passage
Mariners have been seeking the fabled route to the Orient for 500 years. But is its opening a sign of impending environmental catastrophe?
Special report: the weather

Martin Kettle in Washington
Guardian

Monday September 11, 2000


Global warming in the Arctic may have finally achieved something that generations of explorers from Tudor times to the present day failed to accomplish - the opening up one of the world's most fabled trade routes to international commerce.

Sixty years ago, the St Roch, a ship belonging to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) battled its way through the pack ice of two winters at the top of the world to complete the first west to east journey through the North-west Passage after 27 months at sea.

This year, another RCMP ship, named the St Roch II in honour of its 1940 predecessor, completed the same voyage from the Pacific to the Atlantic in just over a month, finally emerging into Baffin Bay, west of Greenland, last week.

At no point in its journey across the Arctic ocean north of Canada did the St Roch II encounter any of the pack ice which defeated so many of its predecessors in the search for a westerly sea route from Europe to the Pacific Spice Islands.

"Concern should be registered with the fact that we didn't see any ice," the vessel's skipper Sgt Ken Burton reported last week. "There were some bergs, but nothing to cause any anxiety. We saw some ribbons of multi-year ice floes, all small and fragmented, and we were able to steer around them."

As so often, though, one man's environmental concern is another's financial opportunity. The success of the St Roch II's summer crossing opens up the possibility that commercial shipping may eventually begin to use the route - shortening the journey between Europe and Asia by around 5,000 miles and sharply reducing competitive costs.

"It is still a risky venture, but the day of the famed North-west Passage, the shortcut to the Orient, may be just around the corner," Sgt Burton said.

That possibility has raised fears among conservationists that the regular use of the Arctic ocean by large commercial ships could cause some of the environmental damage that has already been done to Alaskan waters and coastlines by increased shipping, including cruise ships.

At least two other ships apart from the St Roch II have cruised in the Northwest Passage this summer, one from the United States and the other from New Zealand. The growth of maritime traffic this year is a sign of things to come, the conservationists believe.

Environmental fears


The St Roch II's voyage is another dramatic sign that the temperature of the Arctic ocean could be rising to a point at which existing assumptions about the once Frozen North may need to be rethought - though the causes of the change are still fiercely debated.

Comparison of submarine sonar probes beneath the Arctic ice suggest that the thickness of the polar cap is now less than 60% of what it was less than half a century ago. Satellite photographs show that the size of the Arctic ice cap in the midsummer months is now some 6% smaller than it was in 1980. Last month it was reported that clear water had been found at the North Pole, though subsequent reports have called into question whether this was as unique as it was first claimed.

"We don't know enough about the Arctic to know if this is global warming, climate change, or maybe we were just plain lucky," Sgt Burton said.

The St Roch II left Vancouver on July 1 on its journey around the north of the North American land mass, aiming to reach Halifax, Nova Scotia, by October 10, before sailing on to New York. Its voyage through the normally frozen area from Tuktoyaktuk near the Alaskan border to Baffin Bay could have been accomplished even more quickly had it not been for a number of land visits which the St Roch II made to isolated outposts along the route.

For more than 500 years, sailors have tried to find a western sea route linking Europe with China and Japan. From John Cabot in the 1490s, to Martin Frobisher in the 1570s, to Roald Amundsen in the early 1900s, some of the most famous explorers in history have struggled to find the elusive North-west Passage.

During his voyage, Sgt Burton and his crew found further evidence of one of the most famous earlier expeditions, when an Inuk hunter led them to a series of graves and an abandoned camp thought to belong to Sir John Franklin's lost expedition of 1845. The expedition, which included two ships and 128 men, was last spotted frozen in the Arctic ice in 1847. More than 30 subsequent expeditions have failed to adequately answer the questions about the fate of Franklin and his party.

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