Proof of the existence of the passage in the mid-1800s only revealed how difficult its transit would be, and it was not until the early 20th cent. that the first transit was accomplished. The first commercial ship to successfully transit the Northwest Passage was the SS Manhattan, an ice-breaking tanker, in 1969. In 1988 the United States, which contends that the passage is an international strait through which all navigation may pass unimpeded, and Canada, in whose sovereign waters that passage lies, agreed that U.S. icebreakers could cross its arctic waters, but only after approval on a case-by-case basis. Although the straits that form the passage have historically been ice-clogged year-round, by 2007 warming in the Arctic made the area almost ice-free in late summer.
Sir Martin Frobisher, the English explorer, was the first European to explore (1576-78) the eastern approaches of the passage. John Davis also explored (1585-87) this area, and in 1610 Henry Hudson sailed north and visited Hudson Bay while seeking a short route to Asia. Soon afterward, William Baffin, an English explorer, visited (1616) Baffin Bay, through which the passage was finally found. English statesmen and merchants, anxious to have the passage found, encouraged exploration. Luke Fox and Thomas James made (1631-32) voyages into Hudson Bay.
Although one of the avowed goals of Hudson's Bay Company was to find the Northwest Passage, little was accomplished until a century after its charter, when Samuel Hearne, a British explorer with the company, went overland as far west as the Coppermine River (1771-72) and demonstrated that there was no short passage to the western sea. The British government offered prizes for achievements in northern exploration, and Captain James Cook was inspired to make the first attempt at navigating the passage from the west. He died before he could accomplish anything. The British, Spanish, and Americans, however, pushed explorations on the Pacific coast, and the explorations of the Russians about Kamchatka and Alaska, together with the voyages of Alexander Mackenzie, the Canadian explorer, and the expedition of the Americans Lewis and Clark, revealed the contours of the continental barrier.
Wars between Britain and France interrupted the search for the Northwest Passage, and when resumed after the wars the explorations were made in the interests of science, not commerce. The desire to extend human knowledge was the chief motive in arctic exploration after the expeditions of British explorers John Ross and David Buchan were sent out in 1818. Ross's later voyages, and those of Sir William Edward Parry, F. W. Beechey, Sir George Back, Thomas Simpson, and Sir John Franklin pushed forward the knowledge of the Arctic and of the Northwest Passage. The last tragic expedition of Franklin indirectly had more effect than any other voyage because of the many expeditions sent out to discover his fate. In his expedition (1850-54), Robert J. Le M. McClure penetrated the passage from the west along the northern coast of the continent and by a land expedition reached Viscount Melville Sound, which had been reached (1819-20) by Parry from the east.
The actual existence of the Northwest Passage had been proved, and the long search was over. It was many years, however, before a transit of the passage was made. This feat, which had been attempted by so many men, was first accomplished (1903-6) by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Interest in the Northwest Passage slackened until the 1960s, when oil was discovered in N Alaska and there was a desire for a short water route to transport oil to the east coast of the United States.
See R. J. McClure, The Discovery of the North-West Passage (1856, repr. 1969); B. Keating, The Northwest Passage (1970); A. E. Day, Search for the Northwest Passage (1986); F. Griffiths, ed., Politics of the Northwest Passage (1987); A. Savours, The Search for the Northwest Passage (1999); G. Williams, Voyages of Delusion (2003).
The Northwest Passage is a sea route through the Arctic Ocean, along the northern coast of North America via waterways amidst the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The various islands of the archipelago are separated from one another and the Canadian mainland by a series of Arctic waterways collectively known as the Northwest Passages or Northwestern Passages.
Sought by explorers for centuries as a possible trade route, it was first navigated by Roald Amundsen in 1903–1906. The Arctic pack ice prevents regular marine shipping throughout the year, but climate change is reducing the pack ice, and this Arctic shrinkage may eventually make the waterways more navigable. However, the contested sovereignty claims over the waters may complicate future shipping through the region: The Canadian government considers the Northwestern Passages part of Canadian Internal Waters, but various countries maintain they are an international strait or transit passage, allowing free and unencumbered passage.
As a result of their westward explorations and their settlement of Greenland, the Vikings sailed as far north and west as Ellesmere Island, Skraeling Island and Ruin Island for hunting expeditions and trading with Inuit groups. The subsequent arrival of the Little Ice Age is thought to be one of the reasons that further European seafaring into the Northwest Passage ceased until the late 15th century.
The strait probably took its name from Ania, a Chinese province mentioned in a 1559 edition of Marco Polo's book; it first appears on a map issued by Italian cartographer Giacomo Gastaldi about 1562. Five years later Bolognini Zaltieri issued a map showing a narrow and crooked Strait of Anian separating Asia from America. The strait grew in European imagination as an easy sea-lane linking Europe with the residence of the Great Khan in Cathay (northern China). It was originally placed at approximately the latitude of San Diego, California, leading some who live in the region to call it "Anian" or "Aniane".
Cartographers and seamen tried to demonstrate its reality. Sir Francis Drake sought the western entrance in 1579. The Greek pilot Juan de Fuca, sailing under the Portuguese flag, claimed he had sailed the strait from the Pacific to the North Sea and back in 1592. The Spaniard Bartholomew de Fonte claimed to have sailed from Hudson Bay to the Pacific via the strait in 1640.
The first recorded attempt to discover the Northwest passage was the east-west voyage of John Cabot in 1497, sent by Henry VII in search of a direct route to the Orient. The next of several British expeditions was launched in 1576 by Martin Frobisher, who took three trips west to what is now the Canadian Arctic in order to find the passage. Frobisher Bay, which he first charted, is named after him. As part of another hunt, in July h nm bgbkmth/kbmnh/n,.hm hnySir Humphrey Gilbert, who had written a treatise on the discovery of the passage and was a backer of Frobisher, claimed the territory of Newfoundland for the English crown. On August 8, 1585 the English explorer John Davis for the first time entered Cumberland Sound, Baffin Island.
The major rivers on the east coast were also explored in case they could lead to a transcontinental passage. Jacques Cartier's explorations of the Saint Lawrence River were initiated in hope of finding a way through the continent. Indeed, Cartier managed to convince himself that the St. Lawrence was the Passage; when he found the way blocked by rapids at what is now Montreal, he was so certain that these rapids were all that was keeping him from China (in French, la Chine), that he named the rapids for China. To this day, they are the Lachine Rapids. In 1609 Henry Hudson sailed up what is now called the Hudson River in search of the Passage; encouraged by the saltiness of the water, he reached present-day Albany, New York, before giving up. He later explored the Arctic and Hudson Bay.
Although most Northwest Passage expeditions originated in Europe or on the east coast of North America and sought to traverse the Passage in the westbound direction, some progress was made in exploration of its western end as well.
In 1728 Vitus Bering, a Danish Navy officer in Russian service, used the strait first discovered by Semyon Dezhnyov in 1648 but later accredited to and named after Bering (the Bering Strait), concluding North America and Russia were separate land masses.
In 1741 with Lieutenant Alexei Chirikov he went in search of further lands beyond Siberia. While separated, Chirikov discovered several of the Aleutian Islands while Bering charted the Alaskan region before the scurvy-ravaged ship wrecked off Kamchatka.
In 1775, the whaler Herald found the Octavius adrift near Greenland with the bodies of her crew frozen below decks. Thus the Octavius may have earned the distinction of being the first Western sailing ship to make the passage, although the fact that it took 13 years and occurred after the crew was dead somewhat tarnishes this achievement. (The veracity of the Octavius story is questionable.)
The Spanish made numerous voyages to the northwest coast of North America during the late 18th century. Determining whether a North West Passage existed was one of the motivations for this effort. Among the voyages that involved careful searches for a Passage include the 1775 and 1779 voyages of Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra. The journal of Francisco Antonio Mourelle, who served as Quadra's second in command in 1775, fell into English hands and was translated and published in London. Captain James Cook made use of the journal during his explorations of the region. In 1791 Alessandro Malaspina sailed to Yakutat Bay, Alaska, which was rumored to be a Passage. In 1790 and 1791 Francisco de Eliza led several exploring voyages into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, searching for a possible North West Passage and finding the Strait of Georgia. To fully explore this new inland sea an expedition under Dionisio Alcalá Galiano was sent in 1792. He was explicitly ordered to explore all channels that might turn out to be a North West Passage.
In 1776 Captain James Cook was dispatched by the Admiralty in Great Britain under orders driven by a 1745 act which, when extended in 1775, promised a £20,000 prize for whoever discovered the passage. Initially the Admiralty had wanted Charles Clerke to lead the expedition, with Cook (in retirement following his exploits in the Pacific) acting as a consultant. However Cook had researched Bering's expeditions, and the Admiralty ultimately placed their faith in the veteran explorer to lead with Clerke accompanying him.
After journeying through the Pacific, in another west–east attempt, Cook began at Nootka Sound in April 1777 and headed north along the coastline, charting the lands and searching for the regions sailed by the Russians 40 years previously. The Admiralty's orders had commanded the expedition to ignore all inlets and rivers until they reached a latitude of 65°N. Cook, however, failed to make any progress in sighting a Northwestern Passage.
Various officers on the expedition including William Bligh, George Vancouver and John Gore thought the existence of a route was 'improbable'. Before reaching 65°N they found the coastline pushing them further south, but Gore convinced Cook to sail on into the Cook Inlet in the hope of finding the route. They continued to the limits of the Alaskan peninsula and the start of the thousand-mile chain of Aleutian Islands. Despite reaching 70° N they encountered nothing but icebergs.
From 1791 to 1795, the Vancouver Expedition (led by George Vancouver who had accompanied Cook previously) surveyed in detail all the passages from the Northwest Coast and confirmed that there was no such passage south of the Bering Strait. This conclusion was supported by the evidence of Alexander Mackenzie who explored the Arctic and Pacific oceans in 1793. Vancouver's expedition was later fictionalized in author George Bowering's 1980 novel Burning Water, which won the 1980 Governor General's Award for fiction.
In the first half of the 19th century, some parts of the actual Northwest Passage (north of the Bering Strait) were explored separately by many expeditions, including those by John Ross, William Edward Parry, and James Clark Ross; overland expeditions were also led by John Franklin, George Back, Peter Warren Dease, Thomas Simpson, and John Rae. In 1825 Frederick William Beechey explored the north coast of Alaska, discovering Point Barrow.
Sir Robert McClure was credited with the discovery of the real Northwest Passage in 1851 when he looked across McClure Strait from Banks Island and viewed Melville Island. However, this strait was not navigable to ships at that time, and the only usable route linking the entrances of Lancaster Strait and Dolphin and Union Strait was discovered by John Rae in 1854.
In 1845, a well-equipped two-ship expedition led by Sir John Franklin sailed to the Canadian Arctic to chart the final unknown parts of the Northwest Passage. Confidence was high, as there was less than of unexplored Arctic mainland coast left. When the ships failed to return, relief expeditions and search parties explored the Canadian Arctic, resulting in final charting of a possible passage. Traces of the expedition have been found, including notes that indicate that the ships became ice-locked in 1846 near King William Island, about half way through the passage, and were unable to extricate themselves. Franklin died in 1847 and the last of the party in 1848, after abandoning the ships and attempting to escape overland by sledge. While starvation and scurvy contributed to the deaths of the crew, another factor may have been significant. The expedition took 8,000 tins of food which were sealed with a lead-based solder. The lead appears to have contaminated the food, poisoning the crew. They would have become weak and disoriented — later stages of lead poisoning include insanity and death. In 1981 Dr. Owen Beattie, an anthropologist from the University of Alberta, examined remains from sites associated with the expedition. This led to further investigations and the examination of tissue and bone from the frozen bodies of three seamen, exhumed from the permafrost of Beechey Island. Laboratory tests revealed high concentrations of lead in all three. Another researcher suggests that botulism, and not lead poisoning, was the cause of deaths among crew members. New evidence shows that cannibalism may also have been a last resort for some of the crew.
During the search for Franklin, Commander Robert McClure and his crew in HMS Investigator traversed the Northwest Passage from west to east in the years 1850 to 1854, partly by ship and partly by sledge. McClure started out from England in December 1849, sailed the Atlantic Ocean south to Cape Horn and entered the Pacific Ocean. He sailed the Pacific north and passed through the Bering Strait, turning east at that point and reaching Banks Island.
McClure's ship was trapped in the ice for three winters near Banks Island, at the western end of Viscount Melville Sound. Finally McClure and his crew—who were by that time dying of starvation—were found by searchers who had travelled by sledge over the ice from a ship of Sir Edward Belcher's expedition, and returned with them to Belcher's ships, which had entered the sound from the east. On one of Belcher's ships, McClure and his crew returned to England in 1854, becoming the first people to circumnavigate the Americas and to discover and transit the Northwest Passage, albeit by ship and by sledge over the ice. This was an astonishing feat for that day and age, and McClure was knighted and promoted to captain, and both he and his crew shared £10,000 awarded them by the British Parliament.
In 1940, Canadian RCMP officer Henry Larsen was the second to sail the passage, crossing west to east, from Vancouver to Halifax. More than once on this trip, it was unknown whether the St. Roch a Royal Canadian Mounted Police "ice-fortified" schooner would survive the ravages of the sea ice. At one point, Larsen wondered "if we had come this far only to be crushed like a nut on a shoal and then buried by the ice." The ship and all but one of her crew survived the winter on Boothia Peninsula. Each of the men on the trip was awarded a medal by Canada's sovereign, King George VI, in recognition of this notable feat of Arctic navigation.
Later in 1944, Larsen's return trip was far more swift than his first; the 28 months he took on his first trip was significantly reduced, setting the mark for having traversed it in a single season. The ship followed a more northerly partially uncharted route, and it also had extensive upgrades.
On July 1, 1957, the United States Coast Guard cutter Storis departed in company with U.S. Coast Guard cutters Bramble (WLB-392) and SPAR (WLB-403) to search for a deep draft channel through the Arctic Ocean and to collect hydrographic information. Upon her return to Greenland waters, the Storis became the first U.S.-registered vessel to circumnavigate North America. Shortly after her return in late 1957, she was reassigned to her new home port of Kodiak, Alaska.
In 1969, the SS Manhattan made the passage, accompanied by the Canadian icebreaker Sir John A. Macdonald. The Manhattan was a specially reinforced supertanker sent to test the viability of the passage for the transport of oil. While the Manhattan succeeded, the route was deemed not to be cost effective, and the Alaska Pipeline was built instead.
In June 1977 sailor Willy de Roos left Belgium to attempt crossing the Northwest Passage in his steel yacht Williwaw. He reached the Bering Strait in September and after a stopover in Victoria, British Columbia, went on to round Cape Horn and sail back to Belgium, thus being the first sailor to circumnavigate the Americas entirely by ship.
In July 1986 David Scott Cowper set out from England in a 12.8 m (42 foot) lifeboat, the Mabel El Holland, and survived 3 Arctic winters in the Northwest Passage before reaching the Bering Strait in August 1989. He then continued around the world via the Cape of Good Hope to arrive back on 24 September 1990, becoming the first vessel to circumnavigate via the Northwest Passage.
In 2000 the Canadian 32-metre aluminum twin-hulled patrol boat St Roch II ran the Northwest Passage from west to east in nine weeks and was never obstructed by ice. This added to the alarm about global warming.
On September 1, 2001, Northabout, an aluminium sailboat with diesel engine, built and captained by Jarlath Cunnane, completed the Northwest Passage east-to-west from Ireland to the Bering Strait. The voyage from the Atlantic to the Pacific was completed in a very fast time of 24 days. The Northabout then cruised in Canada for two years before it returned to Ireland in 2005 via the Northeast Passage thereby completing the first east-to-west circumnavigation of the pole by a single sailboat. The Northeast Passage return along the coast of Russia was slower, starting in 2004, with an ice stop and winter over in Khatanga, Siberia—hence the return to Ireland via the Norwegian coast in October 2005. On January 18, 2006, The Cruising Club of America awarded Jarlath Cunnane their Blue Water Medal, an award for "meritorious seamanship and adventure upon the sea displayed by amateur sailors of all nationalities."
On July 18, 2003, a father and son team, Richard and Andrew Wood, with Zoe Birchenough, sailed a yacht Norwegian Blue into the Bering Strait. Two months later she sailed into the Davis Strait to become the first British yacht to transit the Northwest Passage from west to east. She also became the only British vessel to complete the Northwest Passage in one season.
On May 19 2007, a French sailor, Sébastien Roubinet, and one other crew member left Anchorage, Alaska, in Babouche, a ice catamaran designed to sail on water and slide over ice. The goal was to navigate west to east through the Northwest Passage by sail only. Following a journey of more than , Roubinet reached Greenland on September 9 2007, thereby completing the first Northwest Passage voyage made without engine in one season.
In late 2005, it was alleged that U.S. nuclear submarines had travelled unannounced through Canadian Arctic waters, sparking outrage in Canada. In his first news conference after the federal election, Prime Minister-designate Stephen Harper contested an earlier statement made by the U.S. ambassador that Arctic waters were international, stating the Canadian government's intention to enforce its sovereignty there. The allegations arose after the U.S. Navy released photographs of the USS Charlotte surfaced at the North Pole.
On April 9, 2006, Canada's Joint Task Force North declared that the Canadian military will no longer refer to the region as the Northwest Passage, but as the Canadian Internal Waters. The declaration came after the successful completion of Operation Nunalivut (Inuktitut for "the land is ours"), which was an expedition into the region by five military patrols.
In 2006 a report prepared by the staff of the Parliamentary Information and Research Service of Canada suggested that because of the September 11, 2001 attacks the United States might be less interested in pursuing the international waterways claim in the interests of having a more secure North American perimeter. This report was based on an earlier paper, The Northwest Passage Shipping Channel: Is Canada’s Sovereignty Really Floating Away? by Andrea Charron, given to the 2004 Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute Symposium. Later in 2006 former United States Ambassador to Canada, Paul Cellucci agreed with this position; however, the current ambassador, David Wilkins, states that the Northwest Passage is in international waters.
On July 9 2007 Prime Minister Harper announced the establishment of a deep-water port in the far North. In the government press release the Prime Minister is quoted as saying, “Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty over the Arctic. We either use it or lose it. And make no mistake, this Government intends to use it. Because Canada’s Arctic is central to our national identity as a northern nation. It is part of our history. And it represents the tremendous potential of our future."
On July 10, 2007, Rear Admiral Timothy McGee of the United States Navy, and Rear Admiral Brian Salerno of the United States Coast Guard announced that the United States would also be increasing its ability to patrol the Arctic.
In the summer of 2000, several ships took advantage of thinning summer ice cover on the Arctic Ocean to make the crossing. It is thought that global warming is likely to open the passage for increasing periods of time, making it attractive as a major shipping route. However the passage through the Arctic Ocean would require significant investment in escort vessels and staging ports. Therefore the Canadian commercial marine transport industry does not anticipate the route as a viable alternative to the Panama Canal even within the next 10 to 20 years. On September 14, 2007, the European Space Agency stated that, based on satellite images, ice loss had opened up the passage "for the first time since records began in 1978". According to the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, the latter part of the 20th century and the start of the 21st had seen marked shrinkage of ice cover. The extreme loss in 2007 rendered the passage "fully navigable". However, the ESA study was based only on analysis of satellite images and could in practice not confirm anything about the actual navigation of the waters of the passage. The ESA suggested the passage would be navigable "during reduced ice cover by multi-year ice pack" (namely sea ice surviving one or more summers) where previously any traverse of the route had to be undertaken during favourable seasonable climatic conditions or by specialist vessels or expeditions. The agency's report speculated that the conditions prevalent in 2007 had shown the passage may "open" sooner than expected. An expedition in May 2008 reported that the passage was not yet continuously navigable even by an ice-breaker and not yet ice-free.
Scientists at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union on December 13, 2007, revealed that NASA satellites observing the western Arctic showed a 16% decrease in cloud coverage during the summer of 2007 compared to 2006. This would have the effect of allowing more sunlight to penetrate Earth's atmosphere and warm the Arctic Ocean waters, thus melting sea ice and contributing to the opening the Northwest Passage.