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Do unprecedented Northwest Passage crossings do more harm than good?

Ben Anderson

Seventy-year-old mariner David Scott Cowper has seen it all. He’s circumnavigated the globe a mind-boggling six times, most recently in his 48-foot motoryacht, the Polar Bound. And on Wednesday, Cowper may have quietly become the first man in more than 150 years to single-handedly navigate the notoriously icebound McClure Strait in the islands of Canada’s Arctic Archipelago.

That he “may” have done so is because such things are difficult to track -- in recent years, as sea ice extents have lessened around the Arctic, ship traffic in the region has increased substantially. That’s especially true of adventurers, traveling in relatively small motorboats and yachts instead of the usual icebreakers that traditionally navigate the Northwest Passage. And with the islands of the Canadian north so sparsely populated, monitoring of traffic is sporadic at best.

It’s also a little deceptive to say that Cowper made the adventure “solo” -- also traveling through the McClure Strait at the same time as Cowper was a group of three sailors, who also accomplished their own first, as the first sailboat to make the crossing through the McClure Strait. The expedition, dubbed “A Passage Through Ice,” aims to bring awareness to declining levels of sea ice in the Arctic.

In 2009, just before setting out for his latest circumnavigation, the English newspaper The Telegraph said that Cowper was “just as entitled to the veneration accorded to Sir Francis Chichester, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston and Sir Chay Blyth,” but has gone largely unheralded.

Such is the case with this most recent accomplishment, which was met with little fanfare, despite the notorious difficulty of the McClure crossing.

A history of rough crossings

The crossing, though named for explorer Robert McClure, stopped even that explorer in his tracks, according to Ross Coen, President of the Alaska Historical Society and a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“Interestingly, McClure himself didn't actually do it,” Coen said in an email to Alaska Dispatch. “His ship became icebound for three straight years around Banks Island. He saw the passage and knew exactly where to go, but then he had to travel by foot to a rescue vessel.”

McClure was forced to abandon his ship in the ice, and its wreckage wasn’t discovered until just a couple of years ago.

Coen is also the author of “Breaking Ice for Arctic Oil,” a book documenting the internationally publicized journey of the icebreaker Manhattan, a 1,000-foot-long behemoth oil tanker that traveled from the U.S. East Coast to Barrow, Alaska in 1969.

Though the journey of the Manhattan, spurred by the discovery of oil in Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay, shed light on some of the geopolitical uncertainties swirling in the Arctic, the vessel technically didn’t complete the Northwest Passage, according to the strictest definition, since it reached Barrow and turned around.

That’s according to Dr. Lawson Brigham, distinguished professor of geography and Arctic policy at UAF.

“Under the strictest definition, the strict geography of the Northwest Passage is that you have to go from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean,” Brigham said. “That’s the thing. If they’re not going to the Bering Strait, then they’re claiming they went through the Northwest Passage and they haven’t.”

This dates back to the original search for the Northwest Passage -- a hoped-for route connecting the two bodies of water that might provide a simple method of trade between Europe and Asia. With today’s geographical knowledge, that means going through the Bering Strait, in between Russia and Alaska, on the way to or from the Atlantic Ocean.

Brigham provided a list of vessels that have made the full Northwest Passage transit -- through one of seven routes, running from east to west or vice versa -- since 1900. The list is compiled by Robert Headland, with the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge in England.

Through 2011, an estimated 114 vessels have transited the Northwest Passage a total of 160 times, according to the data. Of the seven possible routes, the passage utilizing the McClure Strait is listed first, but is used the least.

The route is described as “(t)he shortest and deepest, but most difficult way owing to the severe ice of McClure Strait.”

Only one vessel is documenting as having gone through the McClure Strait -- a Russian icebreaking vessel called the Kapitan Khlebnikov, in 2001. The Kapitan Khlebnikov is a titan of the Northwest Passage: at 17 transits, it has made the crossing -- through various routes -- the most of any vessel, beating its nearest contender by a full 8 transits.

Dr. Lawson Brigham, who also served as captain of the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea, noted that the Louis St.-Laurent was the first icebreaker to get through McClure Strait, in the early 1990s. That journey, too, didn’t fit the strictest definition of a Northwest Passage crossing.

An open path

So given the record of extreme difficulty passing through the McClure Strait, how were a 48-foot aluminum vessel and a 30-foot fiberglass sailboat able to dodge the notorious ice of the region?

Because there wasn’t much of it.

Arctic Sea Ice extent hit an all-time low on Aug. 27, breaking the record set in 2007 with weeks remaining in the thawing season. With the longer, larger melts comes increased traffic and new passages that were previously choked with ice. Even as Royal Dutch Shell was struggling with stubborn sea ice to make its deadline for exploratory offshore drilling in Alaska’s Arctic, a chunk of iceberg larger than Manhattan was breaking off of a Greenlandic glacier. And the trend seems to be continuing.

The Belzebub II, that sailboat that just completed the crossing through the McClure Strait and is now bound for the Bering Strait in a bid to complete a true Northwest Passage transit, will have to race to beat the sea ice that will soon begin closing back in soon. But the expanded window and low extent of ice could help them in their goal.

The decreasing sea ice is evident just looking at the number of crossings over the years. From 1903 to the year 2000, there were 75 crossings of the Northwest Passage. In the last 11 years alone, there have been 85 transits. And that’s not including this year’s record-low season.

While Brigham said that proving or disproving a claim to be the “first” to do anything in the Northwest Passage is difficult, that’s not the real story, in the long run.

“The McClure Strait just hasn’t been open that many times, to where it’s ice-free,” Brigham said. “If you look at satellite images right now, you still see a fair amount of ice in the strait. But it’s not what it usually is. The biggest news isn’t adventurers using the Northwest Passage, it’s the record minimum ice extent.”

The Guardian’s George Monbiot, in a blog post, called Aug. 28 and the lack of news headlines about the minimum sea ice record “The day the world went mad.” Instead, Monbiot notes, headlines about a runway at London’s Heathrow airport and the Republican National Convention in Florida dominated U.K. and U.S. news.

“When your children ask how and why it all went so wrong, point them to (Aug. 28), and explain that the world is not led by rational people,” writes Monbiot.

While Cowper and the three sailors making the transit of McClure Strait should, in theory, raise awareness of shrinking sea ice, is it just another distraction?

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com