“It was an exciting day for all in the Arctic and we were ecstatic to be able to post a press release that linked our achievement to climate change and [a] melting polar icecap.”
—Edvin Buregren, after sailing through the Northwest Passage, August 29, 2012
Ever since Sir Robert McClure discovered the true Northwest Passage in 1851, traversing the islands throughout northern Canada, the idea of a better way to connect the eastern and western hemispheres has been a dream for commercial travel. Sir Robert McClure was the first to successfully make his way through the passage, but he had to do it with a combination of boat and sled. For his role in history, part of the passage is now known as the McClure Strait. (McClure Crater on the Moon is also named after him.)
The first successful expedition to cross through the passage by sea alone was Roald Amundsen during a three-year journey from 1903-1906. Generally the journey is extremely tough to make, and ice tends to interfere with it being a practical solution for transportation. In fact, it really wasn’t until there was a major loss of Arctic sea ice over the last few years that even allowed it to be at all feasible as a navigable route.
Of course, global warming has been changing all of that. Just last week I posted how this year’s Arctic ice melt has been the greatest extent of ice loss ever recorded since we’ve been able to keep track of our North Pole. (In my book “Comprehending the Climate Crisis,” I talked about the possibility of the the Northwest Passage opening up more easily with less sea ice getting in the way, leading some people to consider it a desirable benefit of global warming.) News of the year’s dramatic reduction in sea ice made headlines all over the world, and gave some adventurous men an idea.
This past week, history was made when three sailors in a 31-foot fibreglass sailboat dubbed “Belzebub II” sailed their way through the passage. According to their website, “In doing so we hope to bring about greater awareness to the changing climate of the Arctic as well as highlight never before explored areas by sailboat.” They made their way through the McClure Strait, named after Sir Robert himself.
The sailors are Edvin Buregren from Sweden, Nicolas Peissel from Canada, and Morgan Peissel from the US. Once they learned about the dramatic drop in sea ice reported last week, they made their decision to go for it.
In their own words posted on their website: “The decision was made in a heartbeat and we headed into the narrow passage filled with excitement and trepidation at what awaited us. We moved as quickly as possible knowing that we would have no time to waste during this short window; we only had 36 hours before the strait would close again.”
The trip was certainly arduous. Walls of ice surrounded them, and as they continued forward, walls of ice closed the passages they had just left behind. But they managed to accomplish their goal to many accolades. They now continue on toward Alaskan waters and the Bering Strait.
Here’s a video capturing them making their way out of the McClure Strait.
I applaud these brave men and the history they have made. But it’s sad that a sailboat can now make its way through the Northwest Passage at all. In fact, in years to come, it will probably become an adventure that anyone can pay some company to experience, similar to climbing Mt. Everest or even travelling into space. Only in the case of sailing through the Northwest Passage, it’s not because of improved technology, or a well-oiled routine that makes it available to the public. It’s due to a changing planet. Indeed, in the decades to come, it’s quite possible the challenge won’t be a challenge at all as Arctic sea ice continues to diminish during the summer months, perhaps to disappear altogether someday.
And we’re the ones making it possible.