Photo credit: Vancouver Maritime Museum

Photo credit: Vancouver Maritime Museum

6. The Northwest Passage

February 21, 2017



The Northwest Passage, or Northwest Passages, are a series of channels through Canada’s Arctic Archipelagos that connect the northern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Arctic Ocean. They are 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle and less than 1,200 miles from the North Pole.

Beginning in the 1500’s countless explorers have been fascinated with the search for this legendary route through one of the most extreme and challenging places on the planet, including Jacques Cartier, Sir Francis Drake, Sir Martin Frobisher, and Capt. James Cook. All of whom met with failure, and many met with disaster.

In the past, the Northwest Passage has been virtually impassable because of the thick, year-round sea ice, however, the reality of climate change and warming seas has created a navigable sea route through the Arctic, at least for part of the year, and a new frontier for adventure travelers and possibly even commercial shipping, if the trend continues.

Photo credit: Vancouver Maritime Museum

Photo credit: Vancouver Maritime Museum

  • First complete passage: Roald Amundsen 1903–1906 (Norwegian)

Although an important "first," it had little economic value because the journey took three years and used waters that were too shallow for commercial shipping.

  • First single-season passage: Henry Larsen in 1944 (another Norwegian who immigrated to Canada)

Again, the route taken was too shallow for commercial vessels.

  • First passage without the need of an icebreaker: August 21, 2007,

The first time the Passage had been clear since the Norwegian Polar Institute began keeping records in 1972.

  • First commercial cargo ship to transit the Northwest Passage: SS Manhattan in August 1969.

  • Largest ship to navigate the Northwest Passage: cruise liner Crystal Serenity in August 2016.

69,000 GT carrying 1,500 passengers

  • First FUll-Rigged Tall Ship to sail in the Northwest Passage in over 100 years: IT's US, SSV Oliver Hazard Perry

Decline of sea ice.png

There has been a progressive, year-by-year decline in the thickness and extent of Arctic sea ice as shown in the graph and maps below.



Time series graph of the average monthly Arctic sea ice extent in millions of square kilometers. The average January ice extent for 1979 to 2014 shows a decline of 3.2% per decade. Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center.





Satellite imagery of 9 August 2013 vs 9 August 2016 showing the Northwest Passage becomingly increasingly more ice-free

Despite having the potential to cut thousands of miles off traditional shipping routes, the Canadian commercial marine transport industry does not anticipate the Northwest Passage as a viable alternative to the Panama Canal even within the next 10 to 20 years. This is because passage through the Arctic Ocean would require significant investment in escort vessels and staging ports, and it would remain seasonal. So while the much-hyped Northwest Passage will likely remain inhospitable to international shipping for the foreseeable future there is expected to be an increase in the adventure tourism to the area.

Do you want to be one of the first to sail on a full-rigged Tall Ship in the northwest passage in over 100 years?

Read more about our voyage to the Arctic

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