Northwest Passage to Asia

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Northwest Passage to Asia

The Northwest Passage was long sought by European explorers to shorten the distance and time that merchant ships needed to travel from Europe to Asia. Most explorers attempted to locate a sea channel in the Arctic waters to the north of Canada. The route that was eventually discovered runs from the Atlantic Ocean below Iceland and Greenland, through the Arctic archipelago in northern Canada, and along the northern coast of Alaska into the Pacific Ocean.

Spanish explorers were the first to try to locate this mythical passage from the Pacific side beginning in 1539, but the British soon surpassed them in the sheer number of exploration parties coming from the Atlantic. Martin Frobisher (ca. 1535–1594) discovered Frobisher Bay (1576–1578), John Davis (1543–1605) found Cumberland Sound (1585), and Henry Hudson (1565–1611) explored both the Hudson River and later the Hudson Bay (1609). All of these efforts failed, however, to find a passageway. It is often forgotten that Captain James Cook's (1728–1779) famous expedition of 1776 to 1779, which ended with his death in the Hawaiian Islands, began as a search for a Pacific route to the Northwest Passage.

Disasters were common. In 1845 Sir John Franklin (1786–1847) led a large expedition that completely disappeared. Later explorers determined that Franklin's ships became icelocked near King William Island. After abandoning their ships and making their way back by land, the entire 129-man party died by 1848. One reason for the total loss may be that they had been provisioned with eight thousand tins of food sealed with lead. After 138 years, laboratory tests on three bodies from this ill-fated expedition discovered lethal levels of lead poisoning.

Finally, after more than three hundred years of failure, an exploring party led by Robert McClure (1807–1873) completed the Northwest Passage by a combination of sea and land routes from 1850 to 1854. In 1906 the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen (1872–1928) spent a total of three years completing the voyage by sea. The first single-season passage was not accomplished until 1944, however, by Canadian Henry Larsen (1899–1964).

On July 1, 1957, the U. S. Coast Guard cutters Storis, Bramble, and Spar began to search for a deeper channel through the Arctic Ocean. Their success was a historic end to the more than 400-year challenge to find a deepwater route that would let large ships make the Northwest Passage. Upon its return to Greenland, Spar also became the first U.S.-registered vessel to circumnavigate the North American continent, beating Storis home by several weeks.

For all of the negatives that global warming may entail, it may also open the Northwest Passage for increasingly long periods of time. It has been hypothesized that by 2015 an ice-free commercial route will appear in the Arctic during the summer months. If true, this passage will allow ships traveling between Europe and Asia to shave more than four thousand miles off the normal route through Panama. In addition to avoiding delays and canal fees, many large container and tanker ships cannot fit in the almost century-old Panama Canal, forcing them to take the longer and more treacherous route around South America's Cape Horn.

see also European Explorations in North America; Exploration, The Pacific.


Cookman, Scott. Ice Blink: The Mysterious Fate of Sir John Franklin's Lost Polar Expedition. New York: Wiley, 2000.

Day, Alan Edwin. Search for the Northwest Passage: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1986.

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Northwest Passage to Asia

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Northwest Passage to Asia