Abnormal Arctic Heat Opens
Fabled Northwest Passage
Above Canada
During World War II, when Henry Larsen took a Royal Canadian Mounted Police ship, the St Roch, into the fabled Northwest Passage, his boat was frozen in Arctic ice through two winters, only emerging at the eastern end after 27 months.
On Sunday, the St Roch II completed a voyage over the same route in one month, including leisurely overnight stops at communities visited by the namesake boat half a century ago.
After leaving Tuktoyaktuk, near Canada's border with Alaska, the boat traversed all of Canada's Arctic without encountering pack ice
"Concern should be registered with the fact we didn't see any ice," the skipper, Sergeant Ken Burton of the Mounties, said over a maritime telephone as he took the police boat into open waters across Baffin Bay from Greenland.
Safely out of the passage, he said: "There were some bergs, but nothing we saw to cause any anxiety. We saw some ribbons of multi-year ice floes, all small and fragmented, and were able to steer around them."
The Canadians' ice-free passage is further evidence that Arctic ice is melting in the northern summer more extensively than usual.
In a trend that scientists attribute to changing winds and rising temperatures, submarine sonar probes indicate the thickness of polar ice is only 58 per cent of what it was in the 1950s.
Satellite photographs show that the polar ice cap at the time of maximum summer melt - about now - has been reduced by about 6 per cent since 1980.
"We don't know enough about the Arctic to know if this is global warming, climate change or maybe we were just plain lucky," Sergeant Burton said as he took his boat south, en route to Halifax and New York.
Along the way the crew of the St Roch and a support ship, the Simon Fraser, found a chilling reminder of how harrowing the Arctic can be: a skull and the graves of six men believed to have perished in the late 1840s as part of the ill-fated Franklin expedition.
In 1845 Sir John Franklin set out from Britain with 128 men and two ships trying to find the Northwest Passage. The ships were last spotted frozen in the ice in 1847, but their fate has remained a mystery.
Until two weeks ago only about 30 bodies had been recovered. Examinations of those earlier bodies indicated that some men had died of lead poisoning from canned food and that the starving survivors had resorted to cannibalism before they, too, perished in the cold.
Scientists and environmentalists are trying to figure out if commercial ships will be able to cross the Arctic regularly in late summer.
"It is still a risky venture," Sergeant Burton said, "but the day of the famed Northwest Passage, the short-cut to the Orient, may be just around the corner."
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