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The Canadian Maritime Arctic and Northwest Passage

(from AMSA Report 2009)


The Canadian maritime Arctic is located across the north of Canada from the Beaufort Sea in the west to Baffin Bay in the east, and south to 60 degrees north latitude. The Canadian Arctic Archipelago stretches longitudinally about 1,900 kilometers from mainland Canada to the northern tip of Ellesmere Island. From west to east, it covers a distance of about 2,400 kilometers from Banks Island (west side) to Baffin Island (east side). The size of this roughly triangular area, including land and ocean, is approximately 2.1 million km², about the size of Greenland. As mentioned previously, it comprises approximately 36,000 islands, making it one of the most complex geographies on Earth. The area is sparsely populated along the coastline. The largest settlement is Iqaluit, Baffin Island, at 6,100 people; the entire Baffin region includes most of the eastern and northern portion of the Archipelago including all of Baffin Island. The most northern settlement is Grise Fjord on Ellesmere Island. Resolute on Cornwallis Island and the shores of Barrow Strait are an important staging area for air and marine traffic.

The Archipelago serves as a major impediment to shippers seeking a link between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans or for internal shipment of resources or community supplies. There are five recognized routes or passages, with variations, through the Archipelago (Table 2.3). They make up the much searched for Northwest Passage, which occupied European adventurers for more than 400 years. The NWP is the name given to the various marine routes between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans along the northern coast of North America that span the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. The first complete ship transit of the NWP took place from 1903-06 by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen following Route 3b (Table 2.3). In1940-42 the first eastward passage, using Route 4, was made by the St. Roch commanded by RCMP Sergeant Henry Larsen. This trip was followed in 1944 by a westward passage following Route 1, marking the first time the Northwest Passage had been navigated in a single season.

Table 2.3 Water routes of the NWP

All passages have common eastern and western approaches. In the east, ships must proceed through the Labrador Sea, Davis Strait and Baffin Bay - the exception is for Route 5, which requires a transit through Hudson Strait. In the western approaches ships proceed through the Bering Sea, Bering Strait, the Chukchi Sea and the Beaufort Sea before deciding which route to follow. In general, the operating season is short - from late July to mid-October - depending on the route and year. Of the various passages, routes 1 and 2 are considered deep water ones, while the others have limiting shoals and rocks restricting the draft of vessels to less than 10 meters.

Water Routes of the Northwest Passage

Route Routing (East to West) Physical Description Note

Route 1

Routing (East to West): Lancaster Sound - Barrow Strait - Viscount Melville Sound - Prince of Wales Strait - Amundsen Gulf.

Lancaster Sound: 80 km wide, 250 km long, deep at over 500 m.

Barrow Strait: 50 km wide, 180 km long, deep, string of islands west of Resolute disrupts clear navigation.

Viscount Melville Sound: 100 km wide, 350 km long, experiences multi-year ice from M’Clure Strait.

Prince of Wales Strait: Minimum width of less than 10 km about half way through the Strait, 230 km long, limiting depth of 32 m.

Amundsen Gulf: Irregular shape, 90 km wide entrance, approximately 300 km long.

Of Note: Suitable for deep draft navigation; the route followed by St. Roch in 1944 on westerly transit and the SS Manhattan in 1969.

Route 2

Routing (East to West): Same as 1 but substitute M’Clure Strait for Prince of Wales Strait and Amundsen Gulf. Collectively Lancaster Sound - Barrow Strait - Viscount Melville Sound is known as Parry Channel.

M’Clure Strait: 120 km wide at east end, 275 km long to Beaufort Sea, deep at over 400 m, experiences multi-year ice from Arctic Ocean.

Of Note: SS Manhattan attempted this route in 1969 but was turned back. Russian icebreaker Kapitan Klebnikov succeeded in a passage in 2001. In September 2007 was clear of Arctic pack ice for a limited time since satellite photos have been available; there was more ice in 2008.

Route 3A

Routing (East to West): Lancaster Sound - Barrow Strait - Peel Sound - Franklin Strait - Larsen Sound - Victoria Strait - Queen Maud Gulf - Dease Strait - Coronation Gulf - Dolphin and Union Strait - Amundsen Gulf.

Lancaster Sound and Barrow Strait: See Route 1.

Peel Sound: 25 km wide, deep at over 400 m at south end.

Franklin Strait: 30 km wide.

Larsen Sound: Depths vary between 30 and 200 meters.

Victoria Strait: 120 km wide, at southern end is blocked by Royal Geographical Society Islands, worst ice conditions along the mainland coast of Canada.

Queen Maud Gulf: Eastern entrance 14 km wide, but widens into an irregular area with width of up to 280 km before narrowing to 14 km at entrance to Dease Strait; numerous islands, reef-sand-shoals.

Dease Strait: 14 - 60 km wide, 160 km long.

Coronation Gulf: Over 160 km long, many islands.

Dolphin and Union Strait: 80 km wide at Amundsen Gulf, 150 km long, and caution should be exercised in passage; several soundings of less than 10 m have been recorded.

Amundsen Gulf: See Route 1.

Of Note: Of the 3A, 3B and 4 routes, this is considered the best option but with a draft limit of 10 m.

Route 3B

Routing (East to West): A variation of 3A. Rather than following Victoria Strait on the west side of King William Island, the route passes to the east of the island following James Ross Strait - Rae Strait - Simpson Strait.

James Ross Strait: 50 km wide, but restricted by islands; extensive shoaling.

Rae Strait: 20 km wide, with limiting depths of between 5-18 m in mid channel.

Simpson Strait: About 3 km wide at narrowest point, most hazardous navigation area in 3B route.

Of Note: The route of Roald Amundsen. Also route of the MS Explorer, in 1984, the first cruise ship to navigate the Northwest Passage.

Route 4

Routing (East to West): Similar to 3A. Rather than following Peel Sound on the west side of Somerset Island, the route passes to the east of the island through Prince Regent Inlet and Bellot Strait.

Prince Regent Inlet: 80 km wide, free of islands, deep.

Bellot Strait: Short and very narrow, strong currents, limiting depth of 22 m.

Of Note: Route of St. Roch in 1940-42 on easterly transit.

Route 5

Routing (East to West): Hudson Strait - Foxe Channel - Foxe Basin - Fury and Hecla Strait - Gulf of Boothia - Bellot Strait - remainder via routes 3A, 3B or 4.

Hudson Strait: 100 km wide, 650 km long, deep, also serves as entrance to Hudson Bay and Churchill port.

Foxe Channel: 130 km wide, deep, with limiting shoal in the middle that can be avoided.

Foxe Basin: Very large, many islands in northern end.

Fury and Hecla Strait: 160 km long, very narrow with fast current.

Gulf of Boothia: Very large waterway connecting to Prince Regent Inlet to the north (see route 4). No problems for navigation except at exit of Fury and Hecla Strait where Crown Prince Frederick Island is to be avoided.

Of Note: Not generally considered a viable commercial passage for moderate to deep draft ships.

Table 2.3 Adopted from Pharand (1988) with additional material from Sailing Directions, Arctic Canada, Vol. 3, 5th edition, 1994 and Canadian Arctic Shipping Assessment, Transport Canada, 2007.


  •  1. Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment Report 2009

Arctic Council, 2009, Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA), Arctic Council.©