Arctic Warming Unlocking A Fabled Waterway For centuries, the ice-choked Northwest Passage has been prized as a potential trade route. Now, rising Arctic temperatures mean the waterway is expected to open up for longer periods — a boon for shipping companies seeking a shortened trade route and for nations vying for untapped natural resources.
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Arctic Warming Unlocking A Fabled Waterway

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Arctic Warming Unlocking A Fabled Waterway

Arctic Warming Unlocking A Fabled Waterway

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In the heat of the summer, come along with us to the Arctic. For the rest of this week, we're focusing on the Arctic, a place that's getting hotter faster than anywhere else in the world. As the earth heats, the ice melts, and the melting ice will have profound consequences for the region. We'll be looking at what's at stake there, who stands to win and lose and how changes in the Arctic could affect global dynamics.

NPR's Jackie Northam begins our series aboard a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker on the fabled Northwest Passage.

(Soundbite of water crashing)

JACKIE NORTHAM: For centuries, the lure of the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic has called to seamen to explorers and adventurers. It's no different today.

(Soundbite of clanking)

NORTHAM: A long, heavy anchor is wound from the Arctic floor up into the belly of the Louis S. St.-Laurent, Canada's largest icebreaker, as it prepares to depart from Resolute, a speck of a town in the far reaches in the Arctic Circle. Onboard are leading Canadian scientists, businessmen and government officials to brainstorm about the future of the Arctic.

The first destination is Cambridge Bay, a six-day journey that will take the 11,000-ton icebreaker - affectionately known as the Louis - to the ice-choked waters of the Northwest Passage with the help of a crew from Newfoundland.

Unidentified Man: (unintelligible) up on the bridge (unintelligible)...

NORTHAM: The Northwest Passage is a series of waterways winding through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. For hundreds of years, it's been prized as a potential transit route across the polar region, like in the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. In the past, it proved to be a dangerous and difficult waterway. The chilly Arctic waters hold the wrecks of earlier attempts to navigate the passage.

Captain, what kind of speed do you want through here?

Captain ANDREW MCNEILL (Captain, Louis S. St-Laurent): We're going 10 knots.


Nowadays, navigation officers on the ship's bridge, like third mate Marian Punch, still have to keep constant vigilance while maneuvering through the ice. Still, Captain Andrew McNeill says it's not nearly as difficult as it was when he first started sailing in Arctic waters some 30 years ago.

Capt. MCNEILL: My first season here was - it was 36 hours of constant ramming of ice to get through this area. So, it took a while.

NORTHAM: Satellite, radar and the like make it easier nowadays to navigate through the ice.

Capt. MCNEILL: Just watch our speed now, Gary, before you get into this next piece. Don't let her go over 10 knots.

NORTHAM: Sometimes McNeill needs a better idea of what lies ahead.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

NORTHAM: An ice specialist will usually take a helicopter to get a bird's eye view of the challenges ahead. From above, we see a patchwork of fractured ice and inky blue water.

Roger Provost with Environment Canada has been accessing ice for the past three decades.

Mr. ROGER PROVOST (Environment Canada): I look at the characteristic of the ice - the ice flows and thickness, the melting stage. In this situation, the ice is melting quite rapidly, actually.

(Soundbite of water crashing)

NORTHAM: When you look over the side of the Louis, you can see how easily and it slices through the polar ice sheet. It's mesmerizing. Enormous blocks of shimmering ice shoot up, twist onto their side and bob along in the clear water, regrouping in the ship's wake.

(Soundbite of water crashing)

NORTHAM: Eddy Carmack, a leading oceanographer with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, has carefully charted the changes in the Arctic since he first visited in 1969. He says the ice on this voyage looks the same as earlier trips, but it has a different feel.

Mr. EDDY CARMACK (Oceanographer, Fisheries and Oceans Canada): I would say that what we're experiencing now is softer ice. It's not as formidable. It's yielding to the pressure of the ship. It's breaking easily. And that's because the ice itself is warmer.

NORTHAM: Rising air and water temperatures in the Arctic mean there's less ice each year, and for longer periods of time. The Louis is making this journey, its first of the season, two to three weeks earlier than normal.

Steve MacLean, the president of Canada's Space Agency, says that trend will continue.

Mr. STEVE MACLEAN (President, Canada Space Agency): In this particular area where we are, it's always opened up for the last 15 years for about six weeks in the summer. Now, it is expected that that period will extend, and because it's going to extend, everything is going to change.

NORTHAM: Ice-free waters for longer periods of time will likely mean more vessels trying to navigate the narrow straits and channels of the Northwest Passage, including commercial shippers looking for a shortened trade route. But as the waterway opens up, so, too, does the issue of who controls it. The U.S. and other nations see it as an international waterway that just happens to pass through Canada's Arctic region. Canada, on the other hand, calls it an internal waterway, and maintains it has a right to regulate and protect the passage.

Mr. BILL WILLIAMS (Scientist): They call this the CTD/Rosette.

NORTHAM: Bill Williams, the chief scientist aboard the Louis, prepares an experiment to test the Arctic waters. As part of a new northern strategy, Canada has increased its scientific and environmental research of the region. It's promoted exploration and economic development for indigenous communities. Ottawa is trying to bolster its claims of sovereignty in the Arctic, increasing its military operations and exploring the natural resources there. It's believed that more than 20 percent of the world's oil and gas reserves are hidden in the Arctic.

David Boerner, a director general of the Canadian Geological Survey, says Canada concurs with those estimates.

Mr. DAVID BOERNER (Director General, Canadian Geological Survey): Generally, those are in the right ball park, but they're often underestimated, because sometimes we can't do enough detailed work to really establish the full extent of the resources.

NORTHAM: Canada has also been mapping the Arctic seabed to determine how far its land mass or continental shelf extends past its visible coastline. This is critical to proving its right to resources under the water. The U.S., Russia and others are also doing the same.

Even if all these claims are settled, the Arctic is still an extremely expensive and difficult place to operate. There are virtually no transportation routes, and the waters will stay frozen for much of the year for decades to come. Geologist Boerner says there's unlikely to be a mad rush to the Arctic by oil and gas companies anytime soon.

Mr. BOERNER: Because you don't really know what's there until you try to extract it or drill it. It's also not sort of whoever gets there first. There are well-established regulatory regimes for giving out land and giving the rights to explore and then...

NORTHAM: But with the warming trends, change to development in the Arctic is inevitable. All that seems a long way away when you're here, sailing on the Louis. The Northwest Passage is a pristine, magical area where curious polar bears come up to the ship, and where at this time of year, the sky stays light 24 hours a day. The air is clear, and there's no land in sight.

Captain McNeill says after so many years he still feels the mystique as he journeys through this mostly unexplored area.

Mr. MCNEILL: You feel very humbled and fortunate to experience that, and you can relate to the hardships that those earlier explorers and traders had to deal with back then. And, you know, I think it's captured very well in Stan Rogers' song, "Northwest Passage."

(Soundbite of song, "Northwest Passage")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) I would take the Northwest Passage...

NORTHAM: Jackie Northam, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) ...of Franklin reaching for...

MONTAGNE: For more on the changing Arctic, go to Tomorrow, we look at Russia's push to claim the polar region.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) ...through a land so wide and savage, and make a Northwest Passage...

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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