Does crossing (a part of) the Northwest Passage demonstrates the dramatic effect of climate change?


With interest I followed the (failed) attempt of the Mainstream Last First Expedition to row across the Northwest passage. They didn’t really stranded in the ice as I was expecting, but aborted their mission about half way their intended route. They ended in beauty before the ice stopped them in their tracks.

Flashback a couple months. This is how they heroically introduced themselves in the media titled “Four adventurers set off this summer to row the Northwest Passage”:

On July 1, 2013 four modern-day explorers from Vancouver will attempt a world first by rowing the 3,000 km Northwest Passage in a specially commissioned boat by human power alone in a single season-a feat only possible now due to the melting ice in the Arctic.

I don’t want to minimize the difficulty and effort needed to row 3,000 km, but technically the Northwest Passage is 5,600 km long from the Davis Strait to the Bering Strait. Sailing from Univuk to Pond Inlet is like climbing from base camp I to base camp II and calling it having conquered Mount Everest.

[…] This area once represented a closed door for mariners who attempted to navigate the sea route, without success due to impassable sea ice. This passage has only become semi-navigable for about three months a year in the summer months when the ice of the Arctic Ocean breaks up and melts before refreezing for the winter. The four men will take advantage of that short window to row the ice-strewn passage.

“It wasn’t long ago that the Northwest Passage was the sole domain of steel-hulled ice-breakers but things have changed,” said Kevin Vallely, lead rower.

As far as I know there were 180+ successful crossings and the earliest were even made with wooden vessels. Things have changed indeed, but things can change rapidly as they experienced themselves.

A question that caught my attention in the FAQ:

When was the last time an Arctic / NW Passage expedition such as this was conducted and by whom?
Franklin and his crew died trying in the 1845-7. Many others died too. Roald Amundsen succeeded at the first traverse between 1903-06, taking three years to do it. The Canadian Ice Breaker the St. Roche, housed at the Vancouver Maritime Museum, made the second successful crossing of the passage between 1940-42. A handful of people have sailed it in recent years (mostly under motor) and a handful of people have kayaked it over several seasons. No one has traversed it solely under human power in one season. No one has come close.

True, but a very odd selection of the facts. It gives the false impression that only ice-breakers can do the trip and just barely. The first successful crossing was done with a strengthened wooden vessel, the Gjøa. How did that vessel even got through that “closed door” and that “impassable sea ice”?

They also give only three examples: first one that didn’t make it, the second example was the first actual (multi-season) crossing and the third example the second (multi-year) crossing. He conveniently forgot to mention anything after 1942 (that are 180+ crossings). Those examples seemed to be picked for impact and give the false impression that the previous crossing were all multi year attempts. It is true that the first attempts were all multi-season crossing, but they were not just sailing trough, they were still looking for a route. They were explorers mapping the area. At the end he vaguely mentioned a handful of people in a kayak which didn’t make it in one season. According his story there was nothing in between and now the passage becomes open they will give it a try…

The first one-season crossing was in 1944 by the same St. Roch (a sail/diesel engined reinforced wooden ship). According to only 19 of 185 transits (with 138 different vessels) took more than one season to complete the passage. 5 even did a return in the same season.

But I can agree there were no Northwest Passage crossing by hand power alone. With the remark that even if they would succeed rowing this route, they wouldn’t technically rowed the Northwest Passage either.

Now back to reality. On August 30, 2013 they aborted their attempt because of … too much ice ahead. The ice that shouldn’t be there because of climate change. They said that their trip would only made possible because of the lack of ice. They ended their journey about halfway the intended route, which was already half of the official Northwest passage.

[…] At many Eastern places of NWP locals have not seen this type ice conditions. Residents of Resolute say 20 years have not seen anything like. Its, ice, ice and more ice. Larsen, Peel, Bellot, Regent and Barrow Strait are all choked. That is the only route to East. Already West Lancaster received -2C temperature expecting -7C on Tuesday with the snow. […]

[…] This has been the coldest season with the most ice since we started Arctic Watch in 2000. Almost no whales. The NWPassage is still blocked with ice. Some of the bays still have not melted! […]

[…] The expedition challenged us in ways we couldn’t have imagined and we dodged a number bullets along the way. The bullets came in the form of a pan of multi-year ice intent on running us over in Franklin Bay, in the form of wind, storm and current wanting us to experience the grinding pack ice of Darnley Bay all close-up and personal, in the form of a southerly wind so strong we’re powerless as it pushes us out into the Amundsen Gulf. […]

The reality seem to be ice, ice and more ice, different straits that are being choked, low temperatures, coldest season with the most ice since 2000, some bays haven’t even melted, multi year ice threatening running them over and pack ice driven by the wind. Apparently not what they were expecting. How did they validate their belief in the opening of the Northwest-passage after their “first-hand experience”? Apparently they did not such a thing:

Our message remains unaffected though, bringing awareness to the pressing issues of climate change in the arctic.

The expedition has opened our eyes to the issues like we never imagined. We’ve experienced the arctic in a truly unique way and have had the privilege to speak with the people that live here and to hear their stories on climate change. And they’ve told us lots.

What? Suddenly that first-hand information thingy isn’t important anymore. One would expect him to be humbled in the face of reality and at least reassess the premise with this new information. In stead his information source suddenly changes from the icefree passage to the stories of the locals. The same locals that told him that climate change is happening, but also that there is ice, ice, ice. Apparently the locals told him whatever he wanted to hear.

From their presentation I had the impression they thought climate change would open the Northwest passage and they would easily get trough. It did not happen. But he was not deterred by it and went on and, surprise, surprise, claiming climate change is still alive and kicking, a belief strengthened by the new found information source.

That’s strange. Let’s look back to their original core statement in the heroic message to the press:

“Climate change is transforming the Arctic and the world. By traversing the Northwest Passage completely under human power in a rowboat, without sail or motor, the Mainstream Last First team will be able to demonstrate first-hand the dramatic effects climate change is having on our planet. Something like this has never been done before. It is only now possible due to the increase in seasonal sea ice melt and deterioration due to climate changes.”

In retrospect that seemed to be a really dangerous statement to make upfront: if the premise shows to be not true (if the passage is not navigable in this short time frame after all) could this dramatic effect still being demonstrated by this attempt? Indeed, let’s turn it around: if one states that the crossing shows the dramatic effects of climate change, the failure to do so because of blocking ice must mean the effects of climate change are less dramatic than expected, at least this year. But that is not what they are telling us now.


1 thought on “Does crossing (a part of) the Northwest Passage demonstrates the dramatic effect of climate change?

  1. Pingback: These items caught my eye – 8 September 2013 | grumpydenier

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