A Dubious Passage

If you are in the transportation business, geography is rarely your friend. Due to the nature of air travel, the air freight business can somewhat ignore geography. However, even in that business the great circle routes between destinations are not always available. If you are involved in ground transportation there are mountains that must be scaled, swamps that must be bypassed, rivers that must be spanned, and traffic that will slow you down. Transportation by sea means navigating around continents, islands, wrecks and shoals. All add time and expense to their desire to move goods quickly and cheaply between two points.

For centuries, one of the biggest obstacles for transporters has been the Americas. Prior to the Panama Canal, trips to the Pacific typically involved arduous and dangerous journeys around the aptly named Cape Fear at the tip of South America. The Panama Canal cut off thousands of miles. However, if you look at a globe you will quickly see that from departure points like London, even the Panama Canal does not come close to being a direct route to the Orient. Consequently, for centuries one of the dreams of mariners has been a reliable Northwest Passage over the top of Canada, through the Arctic Ocean, and thence into the Pacific. It approximates a great circle route taken by airplanes. Such a venture by sea would save weeks and about four thousand miles of unnecessary travel.

There was, unfortunately, one small problem: the mass of arctic ice that tenaciously extended over much of the Arctic Ocean. Trying to get through that seemed about as likely to happen as the Second Coming. British mariners were among the first to try and fail to find a navigable Northwest Passage. The wrecks of many ships along Canada’s eastern and northern coasts demonstrated that such ventures were futile. Modern icebreakers are usually successful and cutting paths through the Arctic ice. However, their paths often do not remain open for long. During the summer, a few commercial ships have succeeded in claiming the Northwest Passage. However, even today such crossings are dangerous. The season is short. Icebergs and shoals along the Arctic Ocean remain very real threats. For these reasons, even after all these years, a Northwest Passage to the Orient remains too dangerous for all but a handful of shippers to try. Those that try have to do so only during a very short period of Arctic summer.

The times may be changing. Because of global warming, the Arctic ice is rapidly receding. The average temperature of the Arctic has increased five degrees Fahrenheit in just 30 years. As a result, the Arctic ice mass is quickly receding. A Northwest Passage is looking to be commercially viable at last.

The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Amundsen weaves in graceful slow motion through the ice pack, advancing through the legendary Northwest Passage well after the Arctic should be iced over and shuttered to ships for the winter.

The fearsome ice is weakened and failing, sapped by climate change. Ultimately, this night’s ghostly procession through Icebreaker Channel will be the worst the ship faces on its late-season voyage. Much of the trip, crossing North America from west to east through the Northwest Passage, will be in open water, with no ice in sight.

You would think that maybe this would be a cause for alarm. However, in the world of commerce, this may be an event worth toasting.

“Shipping companies are going to think about this, and if they think it’s worth it, they are going to try it,” says the captain of the Amundsen, Cmdr. Alain Gariepy, 43. “The question is not if, but when.”

Environmentalists are, to say the least, alarmed:

Satellite imagery has shown that the Arctic ice cap is thinning and already is nearly 30 percent smaller than it was 25 years ago. In the winter of 2004-05, the Arctic’s perennial ice, which usually survives the summer, shrank by 280,000 square miles, the size of Turkey. This past August, a crack opened in the ice pack from the Russian Arctic to the North Pole, an event never seen before.

Arctic ice reflects sunlight; its absence may accelerate global warming. The intricate chemistry that occurs in the rich Arctic waters could go haywire with unaccustomed heat and sunlight. Whole species seem destined to disappear while others move northward in their place. Inuit who thrived here for millennia are finding the thin ice and changed wildlife inhospitable.

Opponents often chastise us environmentalists (not to mention Democrats). “They look at the glass as half empty, instead of half full,” they say about us. Look on the bright side of global warming: a Northwest Passage in fact would cut the costs of commercial shipping, expanding free trade and helping to lift all boats.

This is a poor turn of phrase, under the circumstances. Because all that melting ice will definitely lift all boats, as well as likely cause the relocations of millions of people to higher grounds. In fact, when looking for evidence of the effects of global warming, the Arctic, while remote, is where its affect is most clear and dramatic. The sheets of ice that cover most of Greenland are cracking, pouring fresh water into the ocean, decreasing ocean salinity and rising sea levels. The Ward Ice Shelf in the Arctic Ocean, which has stood unchanged for three millennium, has been cracking since 2000. Glaciers in Alaska are melting. Polar bears may soon be an endangered species: there are not enough ice flows for them to move across the Arctic Ocean. As Arctic ice retreats, more sea pups die because adult seals have to swim further for food.

Even though commercial shipping possibilities may expand in the Arctic Ocean, this is one time when it is better to say the glass is half-empty. Global warming is happening beyond any doubt and it may soon change much of the delicate ecosystem above the Arctic Circle. It is hard for us to know now what ripples this will have on the rest of the planet, beyond increased sea levels. However, it should not be cause for just concern, but for alarm. For all life is tied together. What happens in the Arctic is likely to effect all of us in profound ways, many of which we cannot yet imagine.

The United States is the world’s largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. These emissions come principally from our cars and our coal burning power plants. As a nation, we can choose to take aggressive steps to rein in our emissions of greenhouse gasses. Alternatively, we can keep burying our heads in the sand and pretend the consequences will not affect us. There are other more benign ways to generate energy other than through burning things. We can move beyond hybrid cars to other forms of transportation, such as light rail, that have much less effect on the environment. We can each do small things that can have enormous impact, such as setting our thermostats down two degrees in the winter and up two degrees in the summer. Al Gore has a number of other ideas we each can do that can help the global warming crisis.

As important as our personal actions are, we must demand a national energy policy that not only makes us energy independent, but which rewards conservation. We need larger incentives for greater degrees of conservation. We can make it more expensive to tear down virgin forests and less expensive to redevelop urbanized lands. We can even demand that manufacturers calculate the cost to the planet for the use of their products, such as the European Union plans to do soon.

It may be that by stemming global warming, we will not just save the polar bear from extinction, but our own species as well. If all life is precious, as the right to life crowd asserts, then the lives of all the species on the planet are also precious, for our relationship is mutually dependent. As for all the alleged benefits of finally having a Northwest Passage, let us not make this passage.

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