The Northwest Passage: Navigating Old Beliefs and New Realities

September 29, 2016 to March 11, 2017

One of the greatest stories of exploration and discovery is the quest for the Northwest Passage, an oceanic shortcut from the Atlantic to the Pacific across the top of North America. Tempted with the prospect of wealth and glory, countless seafarers gambled—and occasionally lost—their lives in pursuit of a route through the frozen bays and rivers at the farthest reaches of Arctic North America. Early interest in the Northwest Passage was spurred by the allure of trade goods from regions accessible via the Pacific Ocean, such as China and Spice Islands. Given the Spanish and Portuguese control of the trade routes around the tips of South America and Africa, the search for Northern passages to the Pacific was an obvious undertaking for European countries like Great Britain and the Netherlands. 

The legends of the Arctic were prolific during the first several centuries of its exploration. The earliest voyagers, lacking the sophisticated navigational and surveying tools of the modern era, often misrepresented their findings in their charts and travel journals. Along with the frequent occurrence of mirages in the Arctic, called Fata Morgana, this tendency produced a number of nonexistent islands, seas, and waterways that were widely accepted as confirmed discoveries, even by the highest levels of academic thought. In fact, some Arctic myths clearly emanated from the optimistic conjectures of scholars. One such myth is that of the “Open Polar Sea,” a navigable body of water fed by warm currents that supposedly encircled the North Pole. Although it dates back to the sixteenth century, scholars promoted the Open Polar Sea theory as late as the 1870s.  

The quest for the Northwest Passage was a major initiative of the British Admiralty by the nineteenth century, especially since the passage would cut through British territory in North America. However, even after a Northwest Passage was discovered and successfully traversed, its practicality as a waterway for mercantile purposes was dismal; the amount of pack ice present throughout most of the year, the unpredictability of the climate, and the lack of depth and breadth of the quickest routes of the Northwest Passage seemingly closed the door on its viability as a way to the Pacific.

Although the idea of using the Northwest Passage was resurrected during World War II and the Cold War, efforts to utilize it proved ineffectual. It was not until the drastic effects of climate change melted the seasonal pack ice that a viable Northwest Passage became a reality. In the year 2000, a ship navigated the Passage for the first time without need of an icebreaker. Cruise ships now journey between the Atlantic and Pacific through the Passage, and container ships are beginning to traverse what is quickly becoming an actualized “Open Polar Sea.” Man’s destructive influence on his environment has turned old beliefs in new realities. For centuries, humans searched, hoped, and died for a water route through the Arctic, but the actual cost of the Northwest Passage will be measured in far greater consequences than lost expeditions.