Tag Archives: Northwest Passage

Selectively putting it in context

The last four posts were all about the Northwest Passage and basically about the attempts of two teams that tried to cross (a part of) the Passage. Both failed because of wind and early blocking ice. I found it fascinating how the Mainstream Last First team were spinning their message around, even after the aborted attempt. On their website there was a new post about the Arctic ice titled “How much ice is really out there this year?”, about their encounter with Eric Solomon (Vancouver Aquarium’s Director of Arctic Programs):

“It’s about putting it all in context, really.” He states, “For example, this year’s sea ice extent is still 1.41 million square kilometers below the 1981-2010 average, and is the 6th lowest sea ice extent in the satellite record. The ice that (you) guys encountered says more about where the ice was over the last 2 months than how much ice there has been over-all. There is, for example, a big hole in the ice near the North Pole right now. Meanwhile, the winds have been blowing a lot of ice down into the Archipelago and into the region where (you) guys have been rowing.”

How unlucky can one be. They were exactly were the ice was.;-) Indeed, the Western part of the passage saw more ice, so they encountered it on their trip, but for whatever reason it was not much seen in the pictures of their trip.

A big hole near the North Pole? I want to know more about. According to NSIDC there were “holes” in the Arctic, one imaginary and one real:

Earlier this summer, there was considerable interest in seeing liquid water in the North Pole Environmental Observatory (NPEO) web cam. As explained in our August 7 post, that region was simply a shallow melt pond of water atop the ice and not an actual opening in the ice. Nevertheless, our August 19 post described an extensive region of low ice concentration located fairly close to the pole.

Now, a large hole (roughly 150 square kilometers or 58 square miles) of near-zero ice concentration appears to have opened up at about 87 degrees North latitude. Small areas of open water are common within the ice pack, even at the North Pole, as the ice pack shifts in response to winds and currents, resulting in cracks (called leads) in the ice. The current opening seen in our satellite imagery is much larger. In 2006, a larger polynya appeared in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, but it was much farther south.

I heard about the false alarm in August (it was not a hole, not even a lake, it was not even near the actual North Pole). But in September there was indeed an area with low ice concentration near the Pole. These things are indeed called polynyas and, as mentioned, are not really uncommon in the Arctic region. There are whole ecosystems dependent on it and it even can mean ice growth (wind blows over the water and pushes it to the edges). They are not formed by global warming, but by wind displacement or water upwelling.

That’s real alarmist poetry here. Starting with the explanation that polynyas are common even in the Arctic. Then closing with the mention that the holes are larger and a larger polynya was spotted, but then more south… implying maybe, just maybe, we could have something to do with it.

Back to the Mainstream Last First team:

“Here’s a good example: Last year we saw the lowest amount of sea ice in the Arctic on record-by far. Yet, I was in two different Arctic communities (Iqaluit and Pangnirtung) that were blocked by ice much of the summer. They could not get their food shipments in, they could not get out to hunt and fish. It was a real mess. Elders in Iqaluit were saying it had been at least 50 years since they last saw this happen. How does that happen during the lowest ice extent on record? Wind. The wind blew the ice into the fiords and bays. It was stuck there until the wind changed direction and literally overnight, the bays were cleared. As long as there’s any ice it all, it will blow around. In fact, we can expect to see more winds blowing from different directions than they used to as the climate changes.”

There are the stories from the locals again. The above story was to explain that also with not that much ice communities can be trapped by the ice. They hadn’t seen it in at least 50 years. But the locals told them a lot and it was not all consistent. If it suits the team they say that there is less ice than ever before or “have not seen this type ice conditions” or “ice, ice, ice”.

Mr. Solomon’s words echo what the elders told us and what we intuitively understood. The fact that this year’s summer ice will be 1.41 million square kilometers less than the 1981-2010 average is sobering. To put in in perspective the area of British Columbia and Alberta combined is 1.6 million square kilometers. Climate change is happening and is being evidenced even during a cold year like we just experienced.


They added a graph with the ice extent of September 6, 2013. True, the current extent is still below the average, but the rebound of this year was phenomenal, despite 2013 being touted as the year of the “ice free Arctic”. When one looks at the rebound, it is more than 1.7 million km2. To put that “in context”: that is the same as the area of, ahem, British Columbia and Alberta more ice than there was last year. With even 100,000 km2 to spare. That much ice is hard to avoid.

We couldn’t demonstrate it, but we keep on saying it anyway

We, Belgians, are not a seafaring nation. Our Northern neighbors, the Dutch, have a longer track record and are much better in it. Yet we had a polar explorer in our ranks. His name was Adrien de Gerlache and he lead the expedition of 1897-1899 to the Antarctic in his ship “Belgica”. On board also volunteer first mate Roald Amundsen (Norway) and physician Frederick Cook (USA). Amundsen became much more famous for his later expeditions than De Gerlache.

In a nutshell: De Gerlache and his crew left the port of Antwerp ill prepared, got stuck in the Antarctic ice (in the at that time not charted Bellingshausen sea), desperately trying to dig out the wooden vessel, surviving a harsh winter with limited food and only after 13 months they finally succeeded to find open water (probably more despite him than because of him). Although the mission failed miserably and was incredibly close to disaster, they were celebrated as heroes when they sailed back into the harbor of Antwerp two years later.

I couldn’t help thinking about this when I heard of the adventures of the Mainstream Last First team. They couldn’t complete their mission and had to abort their adventure because of blocking sea ice ahead. Now they are celebrated as if they had proven their case. Not only at their own website, but also for example at Global News. There was a video titled: “Modern day explorers traverse the Arctic for climate change”. In fact, this was not really the case. They didn’t traversed the Arctic at all. They wanted to row a part of the Northwest Passage, but they got stuck half way their mission. And yes, they tried to row for awareness for climate change, but had to stop just because climate change was absent this year (the Arctic didn’t melt as much in summer, leaving more pack ice intact and in other places freezing it earlier).

The title “Modern day explorers traverse the Arctic for climate change” is misleading to say the least. Someone who only reads the title will have a different understanding of the case than the one that actually saw the video to the end. Those who only read the title will think that this “modern day explorers” did succeed in traversing it and that the cause (climate change) is still alive and kicking. It takes to actually look at the video to know that the message of title is NOT true.

There all back home in Vancouver, after a failed attempt to become the first to navigate the Northwest Passage under human power alone. They already accomplished a lot, said Kevin in the middle, who just three years ago set the world record to fastest, unsponsored land track to the South Pole. Now he turns his attention to the other side of the planet.

[Kevin Vallely, Antarctic World Record Holder]
There is far less ice in the Northwest Passage now than there has be over decades past. And we thought that by traversing it in a single season on human power we really would make a really strong statement about the changes that are happening in the Arctic.


They repeat their message about the crossing being a strong statement. Now they weren’t able to traverse that part of the Northwest Passage (which according to their theme should be open for non ice-breaker ships because of the melting of the ice), how strong is that statement still?

They basically blamed it on the wind. While that is perfectly plausible (if the wind is drifting them out of course they will be delays and missing the opportunity of that window where the passage is open), they forget to tell us that the passage closed much earlier than last year. From another Arctic rower we got to hear that last year the Passage closed mid-October.


Pinned by ice or being blown of course meant delay after delay and by late August time and daylight was running out to the point where the decision had to be made. The crew had rowed almost 1,900 km where it should have been 1,500 km.

They did encounter ice and wind and had to divert it which added more kilometers. The wind blew ice into their direction. Ice that shouldn’t be there. Ice that should have melted because of climate change and result in an ice free passage suitable for crossing by a unstrengthened row boat. Can we also conclude that they were ill prepared (of very unlucky) and/or that their boat was no match against the ice? So much for the cocksure “only possible now due to the melting ice in the Arctic”-statement from when they started. They encountered already multi-year ice in Franklin Bay and pack ice in Darnley Bay. That was early in their trip.

[Denis Barnett, NW Passage Rower]
Essentially, the Arctic is as we say the Canary in the coal mine for the rest of the world. If all these changes has been magnified right up there, you know, then there must be something going on, you know?

The canary in a coal mine is a nice way to put it, but it seems a strange statement to make after the canary suddenly started to whistle even stronger than before.

If their theme was that the trip would be a really strong statement for Climate Change, then failing to do so must mean that it is not that strong statement after all. While it doesn’t stand anymore, they still make this statement as if they already traversed it and demonstrated their case.

Arctic witness

On September 9, Charles Hedrich (the Arctic rower who was on his way to cross the Northwest Passage solo in a rowboat) made the decision to abort his attempt and to stop at Tuktoyaktuk where he will spend the winter. He rowed 1,700 km, not yet half way his goal. He plans to continue for the second part in the summer of 2014.

It was something that was expected after his message on September 6 and his focusing on past failed attempts to cross the Northwest Passage back in the 1845 and the 1900s.

Although I deeply respect his achievement of rowing solo for 1,700 km, I find the unavoidable mention of climate change strangely funny. This text at the end of the post caught my attention (translated from French):

The Arctic, a particular area, is often seen as a direct witness of changes to our planet. A field testimony to share and distribute via the association “Respectons La Terre” inviting to know and observe the earth through sportive adventurers who live their passions around the world.

The first sentence seems a bit comical after being stopped by ice only expected a month later and after several statements that “climate change is absent this year”. Or did something happen to that sensitivity or to climate change? Yeah, I know that one year doesn’t prove anything. But it indicates how little is known about the Arctic: this wasn’t expected. Not so long ago scientists and the media projected an ice free Arctic in the summer of 2013. As they also projected it for 2000, 2010, 2012, 2015, 2016, 2030, 2050,… take your pick. It would be interesting to see what happens next. Will the melting kick in again? Or will there be a slow increase of ice? There are certainly interesting times ahead.

I have to agree that these references to climate change are very, very mild compared to what for example the Mainstream Last First team is spewing to the public. Their theme is totally immersed in the “climate change is transforming the Arctic” and even when they experienced it differently they frantically kept on beating this drum. More on that in following post.

Missing In Action: Climate Change


Not only the Mainstream Last First project was rowing the Northwest Passage. Another rower, Charles Hedrich, also started rowing from July 1, 2013. Unlike the Mainstream Last First project, he is trying to row the complete Northwest Passage from Bering Strait to the Davis Strait. The Last First project aborted their mission on August 30, 2013. Until now Charles Hedrich is still in the running. But according to his website he also seems to encounter problems. His website is in French and although I speak the language somewhat, it is not a language that I am very comfortable with. So I give the translation for what it is worth (I think it is better than the one of Google Translate, which is a bit funny to say the least):

First narrowing of the Northwest Passage, the ice is located between Sachs Harbor and Cape Bathurst. Will he pass or not?

The cold already arrived, the night lasts 7 hours now and the temperature becomes negative. Gales follow one another with a steady pace.

Passing the blockade seems possible but the row trip is at great risk. The blocks of ice, icebergs or growlers may literally crush the rower. Anyway the passage is already closed between Cambridge Bay and Resolute. As Charles said before leaving “it is dead”. Global warming is missing. In 2012 the passage is closed around October 20, in one month and a half … But that’s Adventure. Theories are abandoned and practice prevails. React to the situation at hand, decide, avoid catastrophe.

I couldn’t really place the “it is dead” statement. What does this refers to? The trip? Climate change? He has quite a poetic language use. That the reason for the funny translations of Google Translate.
Then I found the context of this saying (translated from French):

I need to arrive at the end of September the latest, after this it is dead.

The “it is dead” part refers to the trip, meaning it will be the end. If he doesn’t arrive before the end of September he will have to abort the trip this year. Why the end of September? As he said in the first quote, last year the Passage was open until October 20. But apparently Climate Change forgot to visit the Arctic. The melt season was shorter and the Passage is already closing 1.5 months before the time of closure last year. Resulting in a couple aborted attempts in crossing the “Northwest Passage” or crossing the Arctic. Both Mainstream Last First and Hedrich seemed to count heavily on the effects of Global Warming to get trough the Passage. The Mainstream Last First had misplaced confidence in this effect and it seems to be the same for the Hedrich attempt.

What caught my eye in the Hedrich article was that after the explanation of the difficulties ahead he also wrote about the previous explorations, titled: “The Northwest Passage: a dangerous quest”. Surprisingly, he repeated about the same stuff as the Mainstream Last First FAQ, just a bit less. He only wrote about the fatal attempt of the Franklin Expedition and the first successful expedition of Roald Amundsen with the Gjøa, excluding all the other successful expeditions. I can imagine why. By only mentioning the failed crossing and difficulties and length of the first successful crossing, it will sooth the prospect of the possible failure.

Luckily he also gives his source: the entry of the Northwest Passage in the The Canadian Encyclopedia. This article seemed familiar. Also here only the failed attempts culminating in the Franklin Expedition, the first crossing of Amundsen, the first crossing by the St. Roch and its first one season crossing. In the following text some mention that the crossing was only possible by means of an ice-breaker. No mention about the other 180+ crossings. At the end a large chunk of Climate Change stuff. It seems they both took this as inspiration for their communication to the world.

Don’t get me wrong here. I have no problem with neither attempts of crossing the Northwest Passage by human power alone. This is an incredibly feat and I highly respect that. Rowing for 5,700 km or even 3,000 km or even 1,500 km is quite an achievement, certainly in an unforgiving environment as the Arctic. But I do have a problem with the one-sidedness of the communication about the project. It is not that pronounced with the Hedrich project, but it is the pivot stone in the Mainstream Last First project: this row is only possible because of climate change and the melting ice. But what if the project doesn’t succeed? Will Climate Change still be named, not as a culprit, but as a phenomenon that seemingly was not there this year?

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 northwestpassage2013.blogspot.com 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.