The Northwest Passage is a famed sea route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean through a group of sparsely populated Canadian islands known as the Arctic Archipelago. European explorers first began to search for the Northwest Passage in the fifteenth century, but treacherous conditions and sea ice cover made the route impassible, foiling many expeditions. Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen became the first to successfully navigate the Northwest Passage in 1906. Climate change has caused Arctic ice cover to thin in recent years, opening the passage to marine shipping. In summer 2007, the route was entirely ice-free for the first time in recorded history.
Where Is the Northwest Passage?
The Northwest Passage spans roughly 900 miles from the North Atlantic north of Canada’s Baffin Island in the east to the Beaufort Sea north of the U.S. state of Alaska in the west. It’s located entirely within the Arctic Circle, less than 1,200 miles from the North [JR1] .
Traversing the frozen Northwest Passage historically has required a hazardous journey through thousands of giant icebergs that could rise up to 300 feet above the surface of the water and huge masses of sea ice that could seal the passage and trap ships for months at a time.
The idea of a northwest sea route from Europe to East Asia dates back at least to the second century A.D. and the world maps of Greco-Roman geographer Ptolemy. Europeans developed interest in the sea passage after the Ottoman Empire monopolized major overland trade routes between Europe and Asia in the fifteenth century.
Northwest Passage Expeditions
John Cabot, a Venetian navigator living in England, became the first European to explore the Northwest Passage in 1497.
He sailed from Bristol, England, in May with a small crew of 18 men and made landfall somewhere in the Canadian Maritime islands the following month. Like Christopher Columbus five years before him, Cabot thought he had reached the shores of Asia.
King Henry VII authorized a second, larger expedition for Cabot in 1498. This expedition included five ships and 200 men. Cabot and his crew never returned. They are thought to have been shipwrecked in a severe storm in the North Atlantic.
In 1534, King Francis I of France sent explorer Jacques Cartier to the New World in search of riches… and a faster route to Asia. He took two ships and 61 men with him, exploring the coast of Newfoundland and the Gulf of St. Lawrence and discovering today’s Prince Edward Island, but not the Northwest Passage.
Cartier’s second voyage took him up the St. Lawrence River to Quebec, which he is credited with founding. Faced with scurvy among his men and increasingly angry Iroquois, Cartier captured Iroquois chiefs and brought them to France, where they told King Francis I about another great river that lead Westward to riches and, perhaps, Asia.
Cartier’s third voyage took place in 1541 and was not successful. He retired to his estate in Saint-Malo, never to sail again.
Francisco de Ulloa
The Spanish referred to The Northwest Passage as the "Straight of Anián." In 1539, Spanish explorer Francisco de Ulloa, funded by Hernán Cortés, set sail from Acapulco, Mexico, in search of a Pacific route to the Northwest Passage. He sailed North up the California Coast as far as the Gulf of California, but turned around when he was unable to find the fabled Straight of Anián. He is credited with proving that California is a peninsula, not an island–a popular misconception at the time.
In 1609, the merchants of the Dutch East India Company hired English explorer Henry Hudson to find the Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Hudson navigated along the North American coast looking for a more southern, ice-free route across the North American continent to the Pacific Ocean.
Hudson and his crew sailed around Long Island and into New York’s Hudson River, but turned back when they realized it was not a through-channel. While Hudson didn’t discover the Northwest Passage, his voyage was the first step toward Dutch colonization of New York and the Hudson River area.
Henry Hudson made another attempt at the Northwest Passage in 1610. This time he sailed north into Canada’s massive Hudson Bay where he drifted for months and became trapped in the ice.
By spring of 1611, his crew mutinied. Once they were free of the ice, the mutineers set Hudson and those loyal to him adrift in a small boat before the mutineers returned to England. Hudson was never seen again.
READ MORE: Henry Hudson
The most tragic Northwest Passage expedition may have been that led by English Royal Navy officer and Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin in 1845. Franklin’s expedition set sail with 128 men aboard two ships, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror. The ships vanished.
It’s suspected that both ships became ice-bound and were abandoned by their crews. Nineteenth century reports from local Inuit suggested the men may have resorted to cannibalism as they trekked on foot across the ice.
Archaeologists recovered skeletons of some of Franklin’s crew on Nunavut’s King William Island in the early 1990s. Cut marks on the bones support the cannibalism claims.
A Parks Canada diving expedition found the wreckage of the HMS Erebus in 2014 off of King William Island. The wreckage of the HMS Terror was discovered slightly north, in Terror Bay, two years later.
READ MORE: What Happened to the Doomed Franklin Expedition?
In 1850, Irish Arctic explorer Robert McClure and his crew set sail from England in search of Franklin’s lost expedition.
McClure confirmed the existence of the route when his crew became the first to traverse the Northwest Passage—by ship and over the ice on sled—in 1854. Yet it would be more than fifty years before Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen would make the entire passage by sea.
After a three-year expedition, Amundsen and his crew, aboard a small fishing ship called Gjøa, reached Nome on Alaska’s Pacific coast in 1906.
READ MORE: The Treacherous Race to the South Pole
Northwest Passage and Climate Change
The passage wasn’t a commercially viable shipping route due to the sea ice, so only a handful of ships traversed the entire Northwest Passage in the decades following Amundsen’s 1906 crossing.
That’s now changed, as climate change and warming temperatures causes Arctic sea ice to melt, creating greater access to the waters. The entire route was ice-free for the first time in recorded history in the summer of 2007.
Traffic through the Arctic sea route has increased in the past decade. In 2012, a record 30 ships made the transit. Crystal Serenity, a luxury cruise ship, made headlines in 2016 when it became the first tourist cruise ship to navigate the Northwest Passage.
Less ice means that marine species once separated by the North American continent are now able to cross from ocean to ocean with greater ease.
In 2010, two gray whales—native to the Pacific Ocean—were spotted in the Atlantic Ocean for the first time in more than 200 years. Experts think the Pacific whales may have made their way through the open waters of the Northwest Passage and the Arctic Ocean into the Atlantic.
Increased access to the route has stirred up a decades-old debate over who controls the Arctic waters. Canada claims parts of the passage as its own territorial waters, while the U.S. calls the Northwest Passage international waters.
READ MORE: Climate Change History
Trends in shipping in the Northwest Passage and Beafort Sea; Environment Canada.
The Franklin Expedition; Parks Canada.
Francisco de Ulloa; The California Historical Society
These maps show the epic quest for a Northwest Passage; National Geographic News.