An Open And Shut Case For Opening And Closing The Northwest Passage!

Prior to Norwegian explorer Ronald Amundsen’s discovery of the Northwest Passage in the early 1900’s, Arctic explorers were few. Robert Peary did tremendous pioneering research, mapping those previously unchartered sea lanes, beginning with his Greenland expeditions in 1886 and culminating with his North Pole expedition on April 6th 1909.

Amundsen and his crew took nearly two years to snake through the labyrinth of narrow lanes of frozen water and thick ice. Since this summer’s drastic and unprecedented ice thawing, the possibility of a shortened sea route– hassle-free and ice-free– poses serious environmental challenges for the region in the future. In the past the boats carried explorers and food mainly. Today their likely cargo is the most environmentally harmful substance known to seals and arctic bears–oil.

The Northwest Passage is the name given to the perilous passage of predictably ice-packed Arctic coastline that wiggles around the fringes of North America from the Atlantic to the Pacific north. Since records were kept, that frozen sea opened its icy jaws only occasionally, and for short periods. Whenever it did, it yawned ice, and when it closed back its mouth, boats and explorers usually perished in its icy bite.

The unusual magnet that pulls men out of warm pajamas to sail seas and oceans where predecessors perished, propelling them to destinations of uncertainty and dubious rewards, is what separates those who say, “I could have” from those who say, “I did it my way.” Hence, gold, as attractive as it is, does not cling to magnets. Similarly, only nouns, whose eyes are keen enough to read maps written on perishable parchments of ocean spray, and mates whose mettle don’t crack to allow fear or despair to seep into their veins, have survived (incident-free) the Mt. Olympus of Arctic expeditions–until this past year. I can imagine past Arctic explorers like Jacques Cartier, Gaspar and Miguel Corte-Real, Sir Martin Frobisher, John Davis, Henry Hudson, William Baffin and Sir Robert McClure somewhere in the icy beyond saying in unison “Amen!”

When Al Gore hinted at the possibility of the polar ice caps melting faster than we calculated, special interest groups sent for long-range missile-guided lobbyists. Helped by corporate-interest-friendly journalists, they downplayed and decried his mission and his movie. Prime time suddenly became eco-unfriendly. Then, in a twinkling of an eye, environmentalists and alarmists became synonymous.

Nalan Koc, head of the Norwegian Polar Institutes Climate Change Programme, made this previously unthinkable announcement at the end of August this year. “Since August 21 the Northwest Passage is open to navigation. This is the first time that it happens.” He then gave reporters these startling statistics: “The Arctic ice sheet currently extends 4.9m square kilometres. In September 2005 it measured 5.3m square kilometres.”

Koc released those figures to reporters in Longyearbyen, a town in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. He quoted directly from research data compiled by the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre, where scientists monitor the surface of the Arctic ice sheet at regular intervals. That week they noted “the imminent opening” of the Northwest Passage.

I have jumped into the North Sea in my quest to swim in as many of the world’s oceans and seas as possible: not for the faint of heart and definitely not something anyone should try unless proper precautionary steps had been made. Having tasted the North Sea, the challenge to explore the Antarctic is even more daunting. It is home to one of the few oceans I have not yet dipped in, so far. Follow Clarence Pilgrim’s article entitled “How many More Oceans To Go” on Since minus 40-degree temperatures are normal for the Antarctic, and there is only one research outpost center controlled mainly by at least 4 Australian Universities, my chances appear very slim indeed. That does not mean I have canceled my hopes altogether. I still dream of dancing with Antarctic penguins. I even took advantage of a minus 15-degree Alpine tundra expedition recently. My team introduced me to the latest Nordic ice and snow walkers with built in shock absorbers: we are really high-tech these days. My walkers even have built in compasses at the top of my sticks and supporting straps that can be adjusted around my wrists, making accidental loss of equipment during inevitable spills difficult. My pointed tips are ringed with circular rubber stoppers that act like brakes-not bad. I will not list the price.

Prior to 1972, the more accessible Arctic Circle was and still is one of the world’s premier research centers for environmentalists. The idea floating around that environmentalists are supposedly against progress is ludicrous: what we are against is the reckless endangerment of irreplaceable pristine habitats through greed-corporately packaged under the broad banner of progress.

As soon as news spread that the Northwest passage was ice-free, Russia sent divers under the North Pole and planted a Russian flag, effectively staking their claim to the region and its supposedly rich oil reserves. Next, Canada and Denmark started shadow boxing over who owns disputed areas off Greenland. The disputed area, I am told is a tiny speck called Hans Island. So, to protect its borders and eventual suitors, Canada immediately assigned two icebreakers from its Arctic Coast Guard fleet to patrol those waters on a regular basis. Now, oil tanker owners are buying maps and are already computing how much they could save by taking the shortened route-with no regards to the fact that many of their fleet have to be mothballed within the next 30 years. It has to get worse, as greedy nations– who have not seen war for the past 50 years, whose bloodlines are war-tainted, whose banks are filled with raw cash from peacetime exports-join the hunt.

Everyone has access to the Internet these days. The types of inviting news those websites are putting out are like buckets of blood to hungry sharks: “The Northwest passage is almost completely clear and that the region is more open than it has ever been since the advent of routine monitoring in 1972.”

Father God, Please Close Back The Passage Until We Become More Caring And Responsible–Amen.

Suggested readings: “The Golden Fleece Found by Basil Hill–

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