In 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued Inter Caetera, a papal bull that divided the discovered world between Spain and Portugal. That left England, France and the Netherlands with no sea routes to Asia. The ban was much ignored but nonetheless triggered the quest for northern alternatives to voyages south around Africa.
The English, the master navigators of their day, were first to mount expeditions seeking sea passages in Arctic waters. In 1553, Hugh Willoughby went northeast with three ships, and, in 1576, Martin Frobisher went northwest with three barks. Thereafter, there were 40-some expeditions, divided about equally between those seeking the Northeast Passage and those seeking the Northwest Passage. Most were marginally successful. Some were disastrous, such as John Franklin’s Northwest Passage expedition of 1845 on which almost everything went wrong and 11 of the party died.
Finally, the passages were proven to exist, the Northeast in 1878-79 by the Nordenskiöld expedition, and the Northwest in 1903-1906 by Roald Amundsen. But proving that the passages were there didn’t lead to their immediate navigation. Held back by being blocked in the Arctic ice, the Nordenskiöld expedition had taken a year and Amundsen had taken three years, hardly viable voyage times for commercial shipping.
That was status quo for most of the 20th century. Everyone knew that the Arctic passages were there, but nobody knew how to cope with the ice in them. Some suggestions were put forth to avoid the ice by going under it in cargo-carrying submarines. In World War I, the German navy proved the basic concept of cargo submarines technically feasible, and during the Cold War, nuclear-powered American, British and Russian navy submarines had shown that it was possible to traverse the Arctic under the ice cap. But the submarine solution was found impractical and expensive for civilian applications. Apparently, nobody thought that global warming brought about by human activity would lead to melting the ice, but that now seems to be what is happening.
In the summer of 2008, satellites observed that the Northeast Passage, now known by the Russian name, Northern Sea Route (NSR), and the Northwest Passage both were open for the first time since satellite monitoring of the Arctic began in the 1970s. Records suggested that the event may have signaled a new regime, with the extent of summer sea ice declining year-by-year.
In August 2011, evidence of that trend came literally in a big way. The huge Vladimir Tikhonov tanker, owned by Sovcomflot of Russia, completed a one-week transit of the NSR. It wasn’t the first tanker to complete the passage. In 1997, the Uikku tanker of Finland had been the first. But the Vladimir Tikhonov was by far the biggest yet, at 160,000 deadweight tons, ten times the tonnage of the Uikku. It’s a “Suezmax” tanker, which means that it’s the largest size of vessel that can fit through the Suez Canal.
Some photos of the Vladimir Tikhonov supertanker show it sailing in calm, nearly ice-free waters, accompanied by an icebreaker. That reflects the remaining unknown aspects of polar sea ice. More needs to be known about the thickness as well as the extent of the sea ice, not only for Arctic navigation, but principally to understand how climate change is affecting vulnerable polar regions. In 1998, the European Space Agency (ESA) responded to that challenge by initiating the CryoSat program of satellites designed to measure the thickness of sea ice. In 2005, the first CryoSat satellite was launched, but was lost in a launch failure. Its replacement was launched in April 2010 and achieved its purpose admirably. At the Paris Air and Space Show in June 2011, ESA released the first-ever detailed maps of Arctic sea-ice thickness. In time, the maps will enable scientists to improve the understanding of how much and why Arctic sea ice is thinning due to changing climate.
The thinning of the ice is the most visible change, but other far-reaching changes are underway. Perhaps most significant, the warming of the Arctic also is affecting marine life, as cold-adapted species are moving north. Satellites have recently been used to study the extent of that migration. In August 2010, two bowhead whales, one from waters around Alaska and the other from West Greenland, entered the Northwest Passage from opposite directions and spent ten days in the same area in the Canadian High Arctic. Their movements were precisely known, as they had been tagged with satellite transmitters by the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources in Nuuk. As for ships, the opening of passages in Arctic waters may benefit bowheads. But it may be a disaster for walruses that need sea ice on which to breed. In turn, that will affect many Inuits for whom walrus hunting is a mainstay.
M. Michael Brady lives in a suburb of Oslo, where he works as a translator. A natural scientist by training, he takes his vacations in France. Dateline: Europe appears monthly in MG.