Roald Amundsen Completes Northwest Passage (1905-1906)

The Northwest Passage—a sea route across the Arctic region between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans—had been a dream for centuries.  It became a reality in 1905 when Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen completed the journey.  Today, climate change has made what was once a dream into a certainty.

The mariners who tried to find the Northwest Passage reads like a who’s who of explorers.  Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, Henry Hudson, James Cook, James Franklin and, finally and successfully, Roald Amundsen.  Amundsen lived from 1872 to 1928 and conducted many polar expeditions.  His most famous was his traverse of the Northwest Passage, which occurred from 1903 to 1906.

Arctic explorer Roald Amundsen, 1912

He had studied other attempts to cross the Arctic Sea, all of which ended in failure.  He decided to try another tactic, using a small fishing ship, the Gjoa (70 feet long, but with a very shallow draft), and a small crew (seven men) that would allow flexibility and access to shallow waters.  They left the southern coast of Greenland in summer of 1903 and picked their way through the ice up, across and down Baffin Island and somewhat farther west, stopping at King William Island.  There, at a protected bay they named Gjoa Haven, they stayed for two years, learning survival skills from the native Inuits, taking scientific measurements and searching for the magnetic North Pole.

Roald Amundsen’s ship, Gjoa, a small fishing boat that could navigate shallow waters.

On August 13, 1905, they set sail again, heading west through narrow and shallow straits.  A few days later, they encountered a whaling ship headed east, and Amundsen knew he had completed his quest.  As he wrote in his diary, “The North West Passage was done. My boyhood dream—at that moment it was accomplished. A strange feeling welled up in my throat; I was somewhat over-strained and worn—it was weakness in me—but I felt tears in my eyes. ‘Vessel in sight… Vessel in sight.’”  They were soon iced-in again and spent another winter before landing at Nome, Alaska, the following August (perhaps on August 13 again, but I can’t confirm the date).

Amundsen’s achievement was world news, but it had little practical impact.  He used routes too shallow for commercial vessels and spent years to accomplish the journey.  Various other voyages, using modern ice-breaking ships, managed to make the journey in recent decades, but those outcomes were still novelties.

Climate change, however, is changing all that.  The Arctic region is warming much faster than the rest of the world, taking sea ice with it.  Arctic sea ice has dropped by about 1.3% per year since the 1970s.  An ice-free passage between the Atlantic and Pacific opened for the first time in history in 2007.

Possible routes for the Northwest Passage (the lower one approximates Amundsen’s route) (image by NASA)

Commercial ship travel has begun, with a still-modest record of 30 ships making the transit in 2012.  In 2016, a luxury cruise ship, the Crystal Serenity, made the trip from Alaska to New York, charging up to $50,000 for a stateroom.  The increase in commerce raises many questions about the future of the Arctic.  Increased exploitation of oil, minerals, forests and wildlife is likely.  A legal fight over ownership is developing between Canada, through whose territory any Northwest Passage route will flow, and other Arctic nations, who claim joint sovereignty of the region through treaties.

Ecological impacts are also likely as the climate warms and the ice continues to melt.  Migration of species between the oceans will occur—gray whales from the Pacific have recently been seen in the north Atlantic.  The poor condition of individual polar bears, which rely on sea ice as their primary habitat, has been broadly reported, but the impact on populations of polar bears remains unknown because of scarce data.

References:

ArcGIS.  Roald Amundsen Northwest Passage Map.  Available at:  https://www.arcgis.com/home/webmap/viewer.html?webmap=605b5c99c1ad42678ddfa6b1d47cbc7d.  Accessed June 15, 2018.

History.com  Northwest Passage.  Available at:  https://www.history.com/topics/northwest-passage.  Accessed June 15, 2018.

Kahn, Brian.  2016.  This Is What the Ice-Free Northwest Passage Looks Like.  Climate Central, August 23, 2016.  Available at:  http://www.climatecentral.org/news/ice-free-northwest-passage-20624.  Accessed June 15, 2018.

King, Hobart M.  What is the Northwest Passage?  Geology.com.  Available at:  https://geology.com/articles/northwest-passage.shtml.  Accessed June 15, 2018.

Royal Museums Greenwich.  Roald Amundsen North-West Passage expedition 1903-1906.  Available at:  https://www.rmg.co.uk/discover/explore/roald-amundsen-north-west-passage-expedition-1903%E2%80%9306.  Accessed June 15, 2018.

This Month in Conservation

March 1
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March 2
Theodore Geisel, or Dr. Seuss, Born (1904)
March 3
World Wildlife Day and Creation of CITES (1973)
March 4
Hot Springs National Park Established (1921)
March 5
Lynn Margulis, Evolutionary Biologist, Born (1938)
March 6
Martha Burton Williamson, Pioneering Malacologist, Born (1843)
March 7
Luther Burbank Born (1849)
March 8
Everett Horton Patents the Telescoping Fishing Rod (1887)
March 9
The Turbot War Begins (1995)
March 10
Cape Lookout National Seashore Established (1966)
March 11
Save the Redwoods League Founded (1918)
March 12
Charles Young, First African-American National Park Superintendent, Born (1864)
March 12
Girl Scouts Founded (1912)
March 13
National Elephant Day, Thailand
March 14
First National Wildlife Refuge Created (1903)
March 15
Harold L. Ickes, Secretary of the Interior, Born (1874)
March 16
Amoco Cadiz Runs Aground (1978)
March 17
St. Patrick and Ireland’s Snakes
March 18
Nation’s First Wildlife Refuge Created (1870)
March 19
When the Swallows Return to Capistrano
March 20
“Our Common Future” Published (1987)
March 21
International Day of Forests
March 22
World Water Day
March 23
Sitka National Historical Park Created (1910)
March 24
John Wesley Powell, Western Explorer, Born (1834)
March 25
Norman Borlaug, Father of the Green Revolution, Born (1914)
March 26
Marjorie Harris Carr, Pioneering Florida Conservationist, Born (1915)
March 27
Trans-Alaska Pipeline Begun (1975)
March 28
Joseph Bazalgette, London’s Sewer King, Born (1819)
March 29
Niagara Falls Stops Flowing (1848)
March 30
The United States Buys Alaska (1867)
March 31
Al Gore, Environmental Activist and U.S. Vice President, Born (1948)
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