The Northwest Passage always represented to me permanent ice clogged channels and sounds, and, for the most part, almost impossible ice to navigate thru by vessel. This image was shattered by global warming in the summer of 2001. I was invited to join an expedition led by Gary Comer, a good friend and founder of Lands End Clothing. Gary had been a sailor since a young child and his interest in sailing led him to form the now famous company. Gary’s plan was to travel as far north up the west coast of Greenland and then make an attempt on the Passage if conditions were favorable. We traveled on his motor powered yacht Turmoil, which was about 209 feet (63m) long and was not ice reinforced.
In 2001, for the first time, there were live and detailed ice information available on the web, and for the first time, the web could be accessed in the high arctic. This proved to be a powerful tool, because we were able to observer ice conditions for the first time thousands of miles away, along with accurate weather data including wind direction and speed. We watched on the web as the ice east of Cambridge Bay started to break up. It was then that we decided to abandon our plan to go far north on the Greenland coast and to head immediately to Resolute and wait for an opening to make our east-west traverse of the Passage. The ice on the Northwest Passage is especially bad on the southwest side of William Island, just south of Resolute, where it is believed that Franklin’s ships were crushed. This area is like a gigantic moving ice plug that blocks passage, but on the web we saw an area that was weakening and starting to open up. We made the decision to go for it and see if we could get thru. It was a dangerous crossing, but we managed to get thru and a half a day later the ice shut fast behind us, so there was no turning back and the only way home was forward and that was westward.
What we saw next astounded all of us. In all directions as far as the eye could see, it was completely open ocean, just water with no trace at all of any ice. So we sailed in the 24 hour light, day and night. The image that will always remain with me is basking in the 70°F (21°C) heat under clear skies drinking gin and tonics on the deck of Gary’s boat in the Coronation Gulf. In the land where Franklin’s men suffered and died, we laid on our easy chairs in Miami Beach weather. Something was dreadfully wrong with this picture, and it registered like no other event that I had experienced to that date of what global warming means to the Arctic. It affected Gary so profoundly that he dedicated the rest of his life to advancing our knowledge of the science of global warming and it solutions.
The expedition made its way in open water effortlessly all the way to Pt Barrow Alaska. It seemed to me a shallow victory in the face of the reality that climate change is quickly altering the Arctic that I once knew. And now, for the first time, the changing climate is starting to affect the rest of the world.
The Northwest Passage was just one of many first’s and last’s expeditions that I have been on. All the ice shelves that I have ever traveled on in both Antarctica and the Arctic are now gone. The North Pole is rapidly losing its summer sea ice and is no longer possible to reach by dog team. The land fast ice on Greenland is breaking up and soon will no longer exist. And now soon, the Northwest Passage will be wide open every summer and the ice will no longer threaten those that dare sail across its vast waters.
[Via Pittarak: Northwest Passage Expedition]