Northwest Passage

The Northwest Passage is a sea corridor through Canada's Arctic archipelago and along the northern coast of North America. European explorers searched in vain for the passage for 300 years, intent on finding a commercially viable western sea route between Europe and Asia.

A map of the Northwest Passage, created in 1854.
Credit: Samuel Gurney Cresswell, William Simpson. Day & Son/Library and Archives Canada/e002852748.

The Northwest Passage is a sea corridor through Canada's Arctic archipelago and along the northern coast of North America. European explorers searched in vain for the passage for 300 years, intent on finding a commercially viable western sea route between Europe and Asia. Climate change may now be opening the once ice-bound passage to more regular shipping.

Early European Exploration

The search for a water route through the Arctic, north of the Canadian mainland, to the supposed wealth of the Far East was a chapter of frustrations in the history of exploration in Canada. Early European explorers imagined North America to be a slim landmass near Japan and China. Once the true size of the continent was realized, explorers spent 300 years probing the inhospitable frozen sea and land environments, seeking a commercial route to the Pacific.

Martin Frobisher (1576) and later John Davis (1585) reported the barren obstacle of Baffin Island, but noted ice-blocked westward-leading passages north and south of the large island. Exploration in the early 17th century was sidetracked into the broad opening of Hudson Strait, but no sea routes were found west of Hudson Bay.

In 1819 Edward Parry, in command of ships of the British navy, explored the opening north of Baffin Island and west of Lancaster Sound to Melville Island. This route through Viscount Melville Sound is the widest passage through the Arctic islands, but Parry reported it blocked by eastward-moving heavy ice floes even in August. After 1829 John Ross confirmed the extension of Boothia Peninsula north from the mainland, which blocked any sea route through that part of the central Arctic, but he missed one of the keys to the puzzle: the narrow opening through Bellot Strait.

Franklin Voyage Ends in Disaster

In 1845 Sir John Franklin led a British team in an attempt to find the passage. Neither he, nor any of his men, returned. The many expeditions that searched for the lost crew over the next 12 years finally defined the coastal outlines of most of the Arctic islands, and reported an uncertain ice-free period for ships of only 1-2 months in August and September.

Sir John Franklin.
Credit: Library and Archives Canada/C-1352.
Sir Robert McClure
Credit: National Portrait Gallery.

In 1853-54 Robert McClure became the first person to traverse a route from west to east, partly by sledge over the sea ice from Banks Island to near Devon Island. By this time, however, as a result of the accumulated knowledge of the Arctic, commercial shipping had no further interest in the passage. The Hudson's Bay Company continued to use part of the water route to its trading posts around Hudson Bay.

Otto Sverdrup confirmed that there was no sea passage through the islands northwest of Lancaster and Viscount Melville sounds 1898-1902.

Amundsen Discovers a Route

The Northwest Passage was finally navigated in 1903-06, by Norwegian adventurer Roald Amundsen in his tiny ship, Gjoa. He travelled west and south of Lancaster Sound through Peel Sound and along the western Arctic coast through Queen Maud and Coronation gulfs.

Gjoa (Amundsen
At Nome, Alaska, in 1906 after the completion of the Northwest Passage (courtesy Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley).

The first west to east passage, by the RCMP vessel St. Roch under Henry Larsen, followed a similar route through the relatively shallow channels along the mainland coast in 1940-42. Larsen left the central Arctic through Bellot Strait and travelled north and east of Baffin Island.

During the summer of 1944 the St. Roch became the first ship to traverse the passage from east to west in a single year, using a new route west of Lancaster Sound, south through Prince of Wales Strait between Banks and Victoria Islands, and along the northern Alaska coast. Finally, in 1954, the first ship to achieve the passage from west to east in a single year was the Canadian government icebreaker Labrador.

Who Owns the Northwest Passage?

In 1969 the American oil tanker Manhattan, with the assistance of the Canadian icebreaker John A. Macdonald, traversed the Northwest Passage from east to west. The Manhattan did not seek Canadian permission, and the escort icebreaker was dispatched without a request from the United States.

The Northwest Passage again was the focus of international attention in 1985 when the American coast guard vessel Polar Sea traversed it without seeking Canadian permission. The question of Arctic sovereignty arose.

In early 1988 Canada and the US reached an agreement to permit US icebreakers access to Arctic waters, including the Northwest Passage, on a case-by-case basis. The agreement, however, did not settle the question of sovereignty. Canada considers the Northwest Passage to be Canadian internal waters, but the US and some European countries say the passage is an international strait.

Climate Change

A commercially navigable Northwest Passage would cut 7,000 kilometres from the current shipping route between the North Atlantic and Pacific via the Panama Canal. Eliminating up to 14 days of transit would present an immense cost savings. That has been unfeasible for the last 400 years because the difficult conditions require fortified icebreakers to make the journey.

But the ice of the Northwest Passage is melting, a phenomenon most scientists attribute to climate change. Many scientists believe this will ultimately open a commercially viable corridor. Estimates as to when summer ice will fully disappear range from 2031-2100. In 2012 satellite images appeared to show that most of the ice in the Parry Channel, a section of the passage, had melted in August.

If a commercial route opens, the question of whether it is international waters, and thus freely travelled, or Canadian waters, and thus subject to Canadian rules and supervision, will become increasingly important. (See also Arctic Exploration.)

Further Reading

  • J. Honderich, Arctic Imperative: Is Canada Losing the North? (1987); L.H. Neatby, In Quest of The North West Passage (1958).

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