Warming Eases Northwest Passage, Author Says European explorers spent centuries searching for a passage through the ice at the top of the world. The Northwest Passage, a shortcut to Asia Europe, proved elusive until about 100 years ago. These days, thanks to global warming and a receding ice cover, the voyage is far easier to complete.
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Warming Eases Northwest Passage, Author Says

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Warming Eases Northwest Passage, Author Says

Warming Eases Northwest Passage, Author Says

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This spring and summer on MORNING EDITION, we are tracking the Arctic news.

Mr. ROBERT CORELL (Oceanographer): I would say that by mid-century something of the order of a 50 percent reduction of sea ice in the central Arctic basin is likely to be during the summertime.

INSKEEP: That's oceanographer Robert Corell, who told us recently how global warming is changing the polar ice. This morning we'll measure that change by tracking a journey that explorers have attempted since the 1400s. Seafarers tried to sail over the top of the world. They wanted a shorter route from Europe to the riches of Asia. A map at NPR.org shows some of the ways they tried to find the Northwest Passage, a zigzag route through the islands of the Canadian North. Until recently they were stopped or even trapped by ice. The author James Delgado has attempted that passage in more modern times and says you can still find traces of earlier journeys.

Mr. JAMES DELGADO (Maritime Archaeologist): Well, you can find them not so much locked into the ice but on the bottom of the Arctic, and you can also find them on the land, particularly those 19th century expeditions like those of Sir John Franklin where, from time to time, we still find scattered bones or a few broken pieces of wood.

INSKEEP: What happened to Sir John Franklin?

Mr. DELGADO: Franklin's expedition of 1845 to 1848 is perhaps the most tragic of all. Two ships, 129 men, sailing into the north and disappearing completely, and a score of bodies found scattered on the shores of King William Island, but Franklin himself, no. Nobody ever knows exactly what happened. A note found in a stone cairn by searchers in 1859 told a sad tale of ships caught in the ice, of men succumbing to illness, and of the survivors landing on that beach, leaving that note and then marching south for rescue.

INSKEEP: Their ship was basically trapped out in the ocean somewhere and they walked across the ice until they found land and were hoping to survive from there.

Mr. DELGADO: Exactly. You would march, pulling heavy sleds full of equipment and supplies, tons of equipment and supplies, so much so that some searchers felt that these men had actually been driven mad. Otherwise, why would they be carrying all of this equipment, including the ship's silver.

INSKEEP: From the accounts of people who did survive the efforts to find this passage, did people get driven mad?

Mr. DELGADO: I think for some, yes, you would be driven mad. One explorer, William Perry, wrote in his journal, after his third trip into the north --again, the ship's locked into the ice for the long, dark Arctic winter with no sunlight. And his journal simply says, Another winter; I will not describe it.

INSKEEP: Nothing more to say other than that.


INSKEEP: I wonder if I could read -- I've got here the journal of John Ross, who was stuck in the Arctic ice from 1829 to 1833 before escaping, and there's a paragraph here from near the end of that time, and it says this: The state of the ice could not have been worse than it was at the end of this month and the hills were entirely covered with snow. It was so deep about the place of our compulsory residence that our miserable abode was almost hidden by it, like the snow hut of an Eskimo in winter. And as to our course of life and feelings, these are things which poetry might tell once, but which neither poetry nor prose can repeat forever with the hope that anyone can listen and understand and feel.

Mr. DELGADO: Exactly. And in Ross's case, these men, struggling tremendously against the odds, they couldn't sail out and so finally Ross nailed his flag to the mast, wrapped his ship in anchor chain, drank a toast to their sponsor, and he and the men took off on the beach. They made their way to a spot where another ship had been wrecked, and there they huddled down, waiting for rescue, rescue that they had to actually do themselves.

Patching up boats, they sailed out and finally approached a whaler. Ross thought he recognized the ship. It looked like a ship he had sailed on in 1818. He stood up and shouted: What vessel is that? He was told, this is the whaler Isabella of Hull(ph), commanded by the late Captain Ross on his first Arctic expedition. Ross said, I am that man. To which the mate on the deck said, You cannot be, for Ross has been missing these many years. He is dead. And Ross was one of those few fortunate ones who, like Mark Twain once said, could confirm that rumors of their death were greatly exaggerated.

INSKEEP: When did you attempt the Northwest Passage, Mr. Delgado?

Mr. DELGADO: I went through the Northwest Passage in the year 2000. It was quite the feat. We went through in six weeks, in this aluminum catamaran. A lot of people thought we'd be crushed like a beer can in the ice, but no, the Northwest Passage has had its fangs pulled.

INSKEEP: How big is the change?

Mr. DELGADO: The change is dramatic, I think, for those who have been studying it. Certainly this is not the passage of John Franklin. Today you have ice that can move in with the wind, but then just as easily move away. At times I felt as if I was on a Caribbean cruise. Bright sunlight...

INSKEEP: Oh, come on!

Mr. DELGADO: Absolutely, bright sunlight. It was warm. Not a speck of ice to be seen. And that's a very different Northwest Passage.

INSKEEP: I was reading, not long ago, a magazine called Icelandic Geographic, and they're talking about the melting of the polar icecap, and they write, This development is a worry, but there are also new opportunities.

What could the opportunities be?

Mr. DELGADO: Well, perhaps now, with less ice, particularly with the longer summer season, the age-old dream of a fast passage to Asia can be achieved. You can shave thousands of miles off and get to Asia faster, and that market remains just as strong and as viable and as exciting for world trade as it did 500 years ago. There are those who say the day is coming, perhaps as soon as the next 10 to 15 years.

INSKEEP: How does this make you feel?

Mr. DELGADO: It's sad in a way. One of the great mysteries of the world, boiled down to a simple tourist experience now, perhaps, or just another route on a commercial highway. And yet, for all of that, it's still a pretty dangerous place. We met and talked to an Inuit hunter and his family. This man was out on the land just a few years ago, caught in a winter storm, he and his wife huddled together and she froze to death. So it's not lost all of its power.

INSKEEP: Hmm. James P. Delgado is the author of Across the Top of the World, and he has our latest installment of the Arctic News. Mr. Delgado, thanks very much.

Mr. DELGADO: Thank you.

One note by the way. This is the 100th anniversary of the first successful trip through the Northwest Passage. It took Roald Amundsen three years to do that, between 1903 and 1906. And Amundsen left Oslo, Norway in 1903, sailed into Baffin Bay, then made his way into the Passage and was stuck for over a year. He didn't get out until 1905 and then was stuck again off the coast of Alaska, had to winter in, and then made it out in 1906.

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