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article imageNorthwest Passage Ice Free First Time Ever

By Lenny Stoute     Sep 17, 2007 in Environment
European Space Agency satellite images show the famed link between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans open for business. Good news for maritime trade, really bad news for indigenous people and wildlife.
The Northwest Passage is hot again and for all the wrong reasons. The last time there was this much interest in the most direct shipping route from Europe to Asia was in the 70s, as the US was looking to expand its oil resources.
On July 1, 1957, the United States Coast Guard cutter Storis departed in company with U.S. Coast Guard cutters Bramble (WLB-392) and SPAR (WLB-403) to search for a deep draft channel through the Arctic Ocean and to collect hydrographic information. Upon her return to Greenland waters, the Storis became the first U.S. registered vessel to circumnavigate the North American continent but did not succeed in traversing the Passage.
This did not deter the oil interest and in 1969, the SS Manhattan managed to make it through the passage, with considerable help from the Canadian icebreaker John A. Macdonald.
The Manhattan was a specially reinforced supertanker sent to test the viability of the passage for the transport of oil. While the Manhattan succeeded, it took a severe beating and the route was deemed not cost effective. The Alaska Pipeline was built instead.
Now comes word from the European Space Agency (Esa) that the passage is fully clear of ice for the first time since records began,
Historically, the Northwest Passage which links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans is ice-bound year round.
But ESA says ice cover has been steadily shrinking, and this summer's reduction has made the route navigable.
The findings, based on satellite images, set off alarms bells over the speed of global warming. This isn't new; the ice in the Passage has been shrinking noticeably since the late 90s but this year it's accelerated.
End result, ESA says it's the first time the passage has been "fully navigable" since monitoring began in 1978.
Similar conditions prevail in the section of the passage through the Russian Arctic, with steadily shrinking ice cover rendering it now only partially blocked.
This is happening against the backdrop of renewed interest in the Arctic region resources. A navigable Northwest Passage would make the exploitation of Arctic resources many times easier and more cost effective. On this point both Canada and Russia, the de facto "partners" in the passage would stand to benefit tremendously.
But the Arctic exploration issue is not just about Canada and Russia. The US has been at the front of a parade of nations demanding the Northwest Passage be treated as an international waterway The European Union has also stepped into the fray arguing the new route should be an international strait that any vessel can use.
To date Canada maintains it has full rights over those parts of the Northwest Passage which pass through its territory and intend to enforce its right to bar transit there.
This new issue of a navigable Northwest Passage has become part of the general exercise of Canadian sovereignty over the Arctic areas in its claim. Canada's moving to back up the claim with the construction of a deep water port in the Far North and a general beefing up of the military forces in the region.
What we're not hearing from any quarter is if and how the ice melt can be stopped or at the very least slowed down. Or maybe those ideas are just being drowned out by the stampede of venture capitalists rushing to exploit yet another natural disaster.
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