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December 4, 2013 at 6:30 AM

Climate change and cannibalism on the famed Northwest Passage

The Northwest Passage has captured my imagination since my Pacific Northwest childhood as a final frontier for marine expedition, ambition and, well, cannibalism. That last part loomed large in my recollection of school lessons, so as the famed passage across the north coast of North America began opening in the past two centuries, I’ve been jarred back to images of the ultimate adventure gone wrong.

More news today: the National Academies of Science has a new report about the potential effects of climate change, including projections about the mid-century prospects for more routine sailing of the Northwest Passage. Overall, it’s a sobering report on the “tipping points” for abrupt impacts on societies, as The New York Times’ Andrew Revkin reports.

Green indicates new maritime access by mid-century. / THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES OF SCIENCE

Green indicates new maritime access by mid-century. / THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES OF SCIENCE

The 900-mile Northwest Passage, which skitters among the Canadian archipelago and above the Arctic circle, is one of the winners in the global lottery of climate change. The report suggests that the 900-mile passage will be navigable in midsummer by “moderately ice-strengthened ships” by around 2050, opening up a much shorter shipping route. Here is an excerpt:

The shipping distance between Shanghai and Rotterdam, for example, is approximately ~19,600 and ~25,600 km, respectively via the Suez or Panama canals, but only ~15,800 over the northern coast of Russia (the Northern Sea route) or ~17,600 km through the Canadian archipelago (the Northwest Passage).

The Northwest Passage has captured adventurers imagination for centuries. British explorer John Franklin made an ill-fated attempt to map the passage in 1845. It ended in the men abandoning their ships and dying from “hypothermia, tuberculosis, lead poisoning, scurvy and starvation — but not before resorting to cannibalism,” as described in a Seattle Times book review of Anthony Brandt’s book “The Man Who Ate His Boots.” That’s the story I remembered.

It has been the playground of adventurers but not commerce because of its extreme ice conditions. But in 2000, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police vessel, taking advantage of the melting polar ice cap, rekindled the imagination, surviving the Northwest Passage in a circumnavigation of North America. Since then, cruise ships have made the passage. In 2012, the 75,000-ton MS Nordic Orion, carrying a load of coal from Vancouver, B.C., became the first bulk commercial vessel to sail it. The shorter route saved $200,000, according to the National Post.

Washington’s ports seem to have a direct financial interest in exploiting the Northwest Passage. U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., inserted procurement language into the defense bill for four new icebreakers in the Seattle-based fleet. As The Seattle Times’ Kyung Song reports, the $850-million price tag probably has “a snowball’s chance in the warming polar climate” of getting through Congress.

But who’d have thought, 100 years ago, that a 325-meter ship loaded with coal, would be passing by John Franklin’s grave?

 

Comments | Topics: climate change, maria cantwell

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