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Last Updated: Friday, 26 October 2007, 15:10 GMT 16:10 UK
Breaking the ice
Ice breakers in Baffin Bay seek data to look at transporting crude oil through the Northwest Passage
Seeking a way through the Northwest Passage in 1970

By Lisa Jardine

For centuries solid ice defeated attempts by global traders to find a way through the Northwest Passage. Now global warming has done just that.

Amid the arguments to and fro about the true extent of global warming, and the degree to which responsible people ought to be alarmed, I find one recent piece of news of the consequences of climate change particularly arresting.

Warming temperatures are melting the Arctic sea ice, making hitherto inaccessible stretches of the Arctic Ocean fully navigable. This September, satellite images showed the Northwest Passage to be ice free for the first time since records began, allowing shipping to travel comparatively unhindered from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.

Lisa Jardine
The search in the 16th Century for a corridor between the frozen northern wastes was driven by intense international competition

For more than 500 years, since Columbus first encountered the continent of America, European mariners have dreamed of finding and navigating a Northwest Passage - a direct shipping route from Europe to Asia across the Arctic Ocean. It ought surely to be possible, they argued, to sail from European ports northwards along the coast of Greenland, then westwards along an Arctic parallel, round Baffin Island off the northern coast of Canada, entering the Pacific between Alaska and Russia?

The search in the 16th Century for a corridor between the frozen northern wastes and the treacherous ice floes was driven by intense international competition and commercial pressures. Indeed, without the promise of financial gain riding on the outcome of these costly expeditions, there would have been no financial backers.

The existing sea route eastwards round the Cape of Good Hope, to India, China and the Spice Islands with their rich resources of pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg, was long and dangerous. If a way could be found from the Atlantic Ocean into the Pacific which stayed close to the North Pole, the new class of entrepreneurial merchants would be able to undercut their rivals by having their sea captains bring their exotic cargoes home faster and more economically.

Icy wasteland

In 1566, in his Discourse of a Discoverie for a new Passage to Cataia, or China, the English mariner Sir Humphrey Gilbert urged Queen Elizabeth I to support the search for the Northwest Passage in terms which still resonate today: "It were the only way for our princes to possess the wealth of all the east parts of the world, which is infinite.

Northwest Passage
Arctic ice has shrunk to the lowest level on record...
"For, through the shortness of the voyage, we should be able to sell all manner of merchandise brought from thence far better cheap than either the Portuguese or Spaniard doth or may do."

Eye-witness accounts survive of several of the early failed attempts to find a navigable way round or through the new continent. The sailors who limped home on their battered and broken ships convey with shocking vividness the punishing effects of the extreme cold and the treacherously mobile ice floes, the relentlessly destructive effects of hunger and exhaustion.

These early explorers never succeeded in finding their shortcut. But in the process of failing to reach their Eldorado, they stumbled upon other, hitherto unknown territories, which turned out to be of equivalent, if not greater importance for success in a newly global economy.

The English mariner Henry Hudson made four attempts at finding a passage through Arctic waters between 1607 and 1611. His determination to prove that such a route existed bordered on the obsessive. On the final attempt, both he and his son John perished, set adrift in an open boat by their mutinous crew, who balked at the prospect of another prolonged period of fruitlessly negotiating the never-ending frozen wastes in the region subsequently named Hudson Bay.

For his first two attempts, Hudson sailed due north from England, then turned eastwards to try to skirt the northern coast of Russia. Almost locked into a frozen sea off the island of Nova Zembla, he was forced to turn back, and his backers abandoned him. Undeterred, Hudson found a new investor in the form of the Dutch East India Company, and set off again in the summer of 1609 on his ship, the Half Moon.

Paradise found

It was this third voyage that accidentally proved his most successful.

Satellite images from Nasa show an ice-free passage
... with an ice-free passage opening last month
Hudson had determined views on routes and agendas. Although his Dutch contract committed him to pursuing the eastwards route around the Pole he had attempted before, faced once more with extreme cold and floating ice, Hudson impetuously decided to abandon this shortly after embarkation. Instead he headed westwards towards North America, to take up a suggestion of Captain John Smith's - the first Governor of Virginia - that a northerly navigable river might lead across the continent, and out the other side to the Spice Islands.

On 12 September 1609, the Half Moon entered the mouth of what is now called the Hudson River - "as fine a river as can be found, wide and deep, with good anchoring ground on both sides" and "a very good harbour for all winds", according to a contemporary account.

They were in the outer reaches of what today is New York harbour, riding along the coast of Staten Island. Fish swam around them in shoals. When they anchored and went ashore, they found "friendly and polite people, who had an abundance of provisions, skins, and furs, of martens and foxes, and many other commodities, as birds and fruit, even white and red grapes, and they traded amicably with the people."

But sailing up the broad river as far as what is today Albany, the water became "sweet" (not salty) and too shallow for a seagoing ship to pass. So this was not the route Hudson was looking for.

But on Hudson's return, his Dutch backers quickly recognised that the area of the New World he had explored was worth further exploration and exploitation. The history of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam on Manhattan Island, famously acquired in 1626 from the Indian tribe that lived there for goods to the value of 60 guilders, is a rich one in its own right. Had that pivotal North American colony not been seized by the British 38 years later, the entire Western world might today be speaking Dutch.

Who owns it?

The search for the Northwest Passage continued down to the 19th Century. In 1845, Sir John Franklin with two ships and a crew of more than 120 men disappeared without trace in the Arctic wastes. By that time the commercial world was beginning to direct its efforts to improve long distance trade routes elsewhere, leading eventually to the building of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the Panama Canal in 1914.

Painting of the ill-fated arctic expedition led by Sir John Franklin
Sir John Franklin's ill-fated expedition
Today our relentless search for essential natural resources - given added urgency by our profligate consumption of gas and oil - has reopened international interest in accessing that elusive Northwest Passage. For now the research scientists exploring the region, the last areas on Earth to be fully explored, insist that their endeavours are concentrated on understanding climate change and global warming for the good of humankind.

But already governments have their eye on long-term possibilities for control of our ever-depleting stocks of oil and gas. In the Arctic, Canada and the US are at loggerheads over who controls the freezing waters of the Northwest Passage, while Russia claims to be entitled to exploit the natural resources underneath the North Pole.

Meanwhile, in the Southern Hemisphere, the tenacious hold Britain has maintained on the islands of South Georgia and the Falklands, which resulted 20 years ago in our going to war with Argentina over the sovereignty of those two remote and windswept pieces of land, finally begins to make sense to me. The pursuit of British polar interests in the 21st Century may owe more to Margaret Thatcher than we realise.

Canada staged its largest ever military exercise to exercise sovereignty in the Arctic this summer
Canada exerting its sovereignty
That sovereignty supports Britain's claim to territorial rights over a sweeping arc of the Antarctic Ocean under which may lie those priceless natural resources - resources also claimed vociferously by Argentina and Chile. Twelve other nations, including Australia, New Zealand, Russia, and by historical adventure, Norway and Japan, make more measured claims, through peaceful cooperation, enshrined in the 1961 Antarctic treaty.

Is it too late to find a way to preserve the altruistic tone of scientific collaboration that these inhospitable and remote regions have up to now enjoyed? Might we indeed go further - could the nations of the world combine in their battle against global warming and succeed in reversing its tide, so that the Northwest Passage may once again become frozen and impassable?

Below is a selection of your comments

Canada must exert its sovereignty in the Arctic at any price. Any exploitation is unacceptable and could happen if profiteering pushes through short-minded policy for a quick buck. Canada has acquired an expertise and appreciation for the Arctic's extremely fragile ecosystem and landscape, coupled by a developing sustainable policy with the local inhabitants. The Artic is already like a Canadian regulated World Park. Could you image the additional mistakes that will be made by others with no long-term interests?
Brian Whittaker, Solihull, England

It's ironic that global warming has led to the opening of the NW passage which has in turn led to squabbling among the countries bordering it, in order to exploit the very fossil fuels that aggravate further global warming.
Phil Walls, Awal;i, Kngdom of Bahrain

Arctic, and Antarctic regions as well have been widely spared from resource exploration. With the rarefaction of cheap energy and minerals, they are changing status, from scientific to strategic. This gives a new light to the actual link between science and economy; after wintering over twice in this area, I was convinced our presence wasn't what it claimed to be. Global warming, to some extent, is a bounty for countries with a foot in polar regions; their governments will now face conflicts of interest of a new nature, and new sovereignty challenges.
Tom Frozart, Perth, Australia

When you say "satellite images showed the Northwest Passage to be ice free for the first time since records began", you should remember that satellite records only go back to the 1970s. This is the blink of an eye in our planet's history. You should also note that these same satellite records showed that the Antarctic sea-ice extent reached a record HIGH this year.More to the point, NASA says that the low Arctic ice is not due to global warming, but rather due to unusual wind conditions
Freddy, London

Yes, sure, the North-West Passage was free of ice in 2007, and this was for the first time "since records began": but since the records, taken by satellites, only began 29 years ago, this isn't actually as dramatic as the global warming propagandists would like to make it sound. Especially given a little research would show you that the North-West Passage was also open for shipping in 1945. Or going further back, in 1903 the Norwegian explorer Amundsen passed through it too! "Since records began", indeed. Sorry for the inconvenient truths.
Phil, Sevenoaks

As an ex sea farer it was my dream to sail up the St Lawerence river in Canada, luckily I did. My other was to go up to Chichago but at that time they never had it clear, I hope one day that they will clear a passage for ships to travel the distance.
Richard Cubitt, London

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