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The Northwest Passage 2        

The Northwest Passage (NWP)

(by Willy Østreng)


The Northwest Passage is the name given to a set of marine routes between the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean, spanning the straits and sounds of the Canadian Archipelago, the Davis Strait and the Baffin Bay in the east and the Beaufort Sea in the west. Like the NSR it is a transportation corridor channelled through islands occupying broad expanses of water and land in the north-south direction. The base of the archipelago stretches some 3000 km along the mainland coast, and the tip of Ellesmere Island is less than 900 km from the geographic North Pole. The Archipelago is one of the largest in the world and consists of a labyrinth of islands and headlands of various sizes and shapes. There are 73 major islands of more than 50 sq. miles in area, and some 18 114 smaller ones1 . If islets and rocks are included, the Archipelago comprises approximately 36 000 pieces of dry land above sea level, making it one of the most complex geographies on Earth2 .

The Canadian Archipelago is subdivided into two main parts by the Parry Channel. The northern part consists of the Queen Elisabeth islands, whereas the southern part comprises all islands located north of the Canadian mainland and south of the Parry Channel. Thus, the most troublesome part of the NWP, as seen from a mariner’s point of view runs through a continuous archipelago with narrow straits often jammed with impenetrable multi-year sea ice drifting in from the Central Arctic Ocean.

The NWP consists of seven different routes of which six runs through the southern part of the archipelago (see Figure 1.7a)3 . All of the routes starts out in the eastern part of the Parry Channel heading westward until six of them at different points along the channel breaks off and take a southerly direction to reach the coastal waters of the mainland before making a turn westwards towards the Beaufort Sea. The seventh route employ the Parry Channel in its entirety until it reaches the Beaufort Sea through the often ice clogged M’Clure Strait between Melville and Banks Islands. Of the six southerly routes, the most navigable to be employed by international shipping comprises the Parry Channel until it takes a southerly direction and goes through the Prince of Wales Strait between Banks and Victoria islands, and then west again along the north coast of the Canadian mainland and Alaska to the Bering Strait (see Figure 1.7b)4 .

Like the NEP, there is no single set channel for ships to follow. The channel used is based on which of them offers the best sea ice conditions at any one time and place. Thus, the NWP is like the NEP/NSR a transportation corridor through one massive archipelago until it reaches open, but ice-infested waters in the Baffin Bay (east) and Beaufort Sea (west). From Baffin Island (east side) to Banks Island (west side) it covers a distance of about 2 400 kilometres, and the size of this whole Archipelago is approximately 2,1 million sq. kilometres, i.e. about the size of Greenland2 .

A sea ice condition within the archipelago varies dramatically from year to year, presenting unpredictability to any surface operation. There is mounting evidence that sea ice reduction will continue, although there is great uncertainty over the rate at which sea ice will continue to diminish. In summers 2007 and 2008 most of the archipelago was so called ice free, promising to open the NWP to high volumes of intercontinental commercial shipping. This warrants a comment on the concept of ice-free.

Most Arctic shipping experts view this term as meaning ice-infested with icebergs, bergybits and growlers present, even in the summer period. In fact, some believe shipping operations in this environment can be even more dangerous than in ice covered areas. From a mariners point of view it has been assumed that “…with less ice, more icebreaking capacity will be needed5 . The reasoning goes as follow: “Initially, as first year ice weakens and/or disappears; its ability to keep multi-year ice out of shipping areas will be adversely affected. This will mean that, even if there is less ice overall, it will be much harder, pose more of a damage risk and be more difficult to break the passage through. I have rammed multi-year ice with a heavy icebreaker, been stopped and when the icebreaker was reversed, was not able to see any evidence of the impact of ice. The same lack of first year ice will also allow for much more freedom of movement of the multi-year ice pack which will then likely compact in chokepoints, thereby compounding the problem. In the future then, as the climate changes, we can look forward to standard ice deviations in coverage, thickness and movement that will continue to increase dramatically, giving shipping some of the best “ice” years yet, but potentially some of the worst aswell5 . Ice-free does not mean problem-free, or preclude icebreaker assistance.  

Figure 1.7a:  Seven Possible Routes through the NWP


Source: Stuart et al. (2005), from http://www.enr.gov.nt.ca/_live/pages/wpPages/soe_human_activities.aspx(external link)

The inter-annual variability in sea ice conditions within the Canadian Archipelago will continue to be extreme. According to the Canadian Ice Service, “It is quite likely that the latter half of this century will still experience occasional summers with ice conditions as severe as those witnessed in the 1980s. Multi-year ice, particular in low concentrations, will present the major hazard to shipping…. Since the oldest and thickest ice in the Arctic Ocean is that which is driven against the western flank of the Canadian Archipelago, this will likely be the last multi-year ice to remain. As long as this remains a source of multi-year ice in the Arctic Ocean, it will continue to drift through the Canadian Archipelago6 . M’Clure Strait between Melville and Banks Island is one of the straits that have a fairly long history of being blocked with multi-year ice drifting in from the Central Arctic Ocean.  In addition comes shallow waters and draft restrictions, narrow straits acting like chock points and the combination of the two, making navigation a regular and punctual activity hard to achieve. In the AMSA study the conclusion is clear: “Even during the most recent periods of reduced ice, the location of the ice, its thickness from year to year and the variability of ice-free areas makes it nearly impossible to schedule transits with any degree of certainty of reaching the desired port on schedule2 .

Figure 1.7b:  The Sailing Lanes of the NWP 


Source: blogs.chron.com/sciguy/archives/2009/08/

When leaving the Archipelago and entering the Beaufort Sea, the NWP passes through the coastal waters of  Canada and the United States and in the Davis Strait between Greenland and Canada, and is as such a “three-state and multi-nation route.” The indigenous peoples –

of which the Inuit population is the biggest - makes up the multi nation characteristic of the route. They are exposed to the same possible negative and positive effects of increasing shipping as their counterparts along the NEP and NSR (see above and chapters 4 and 6). But there are important differences between the natives of the two Passages. In Greenland the Inuit have enjoyed home rule since 1979 and in Nunavut (meaning ‘our land’) a fair amount of native autonomy was achieved in 1999. This notwithstanding, the indigenous peoples of the two countries do have an image of governance and institutions that differs from that of their former colonizers. As has been stated, “(t)here is a need for more flexibility and a rethinking of the boundaries of Danish-European and Anglo-Canadian legal imaginations that would adopt to Inuit realities and better serve their aspirations to self-governance7 . The assumption is that with increasing autonomy follows increasing political influence on regional affairs. That may provide the natives of the two countries with a place at the table and a more decisive role in national and international decision making (see chapter 6).

Intra-Arctic, Destination-Arctic and Transit Routes in the Northwest Passage

Canada claim full and unlimited jurisdiction over the archipelagic section of the route which was declared part of Canadian internal waters, effective January 1986. The United States and latter on the EU have protested against this claim which they find illegal. According to the US government the NWP is an international strait open to international shipping on the basis of the principle of transit passage without any interferences from the coastal state. Thus, when it comes to the legal status of their respective passages, Canada and Russia are faced with the same legal and political opposition (see chapters 2 and 6). This disagreement surfaced in 1970 when Canada enacted the Arctic Water Pollution Prevention Act (AWPPA) establishing a 100 nautical miles environmental zone north of the Archipelago as a precautionary step to prevent ship-based pollution. This was a unilateral reaction on the part of Canada to the roundtrip of the US tanker Manhattan through the NWP in the 1969-70. At the time of enactment the Act was not part of accepted international ocean law. Thus, the U.S. government immediately declared the Canadian move a violation of international law and a threat to the status of the NWP as a strait open to international navigation. Diplomatic notes were exchanged and protests issued in both directions. In the 1980s, the two parties calmed the conflict and agreed to disagree. However, in 2009 the USA restated her long term opposition against the Canadian position, indicating that the question of freedom of navigation is high on her political agenda and that national interest are at stake if that freedom is curbed8 . The EU Commission has followed suit and supported the US stand on the legal status of the NWP (see chapter 6)9 .

Despite attempts to find the NWP during the 19th century, the first transit passage was not achieved until Gjøa negotiated the southern coastal route in 1903-06. Manhattan completed the first round trip in 1969-70 and the cruise ship, Lindblad Explorer made the first revenue earning voyage in 1984. Between 1903 and 2004 there have been 94 single transit passages by larger ships, 30 round trips and 27 recreational small boat passages (from Atlantic to Pacific waters or vice versa). Thus, counting round trips as two passages, there have been 181 transits during the 101-year period and most of these have been through the southern coastal route. On average, 1,7 transits have been conducted  per year in the course of 101 years.

These voyages were undertaken by 67 vessels carrying 15 different flags. In the same period, 175 partial transits were recorded through the waters of the archipelago (not going through the whole of the NWP, including the Beaufort Sea)10 . A further brief examination of available data shows that transits of the passage remained a fairly sporadic affair until the 1970s, up to which point only nine complete transits had been made. In terms of flag activity, 63 percent of transits between 1903-2004 were Canadian flag, mainly Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers11 .

The last 34 years have seen the most transit sailings. From 1969 to the end of the 1980s, more than 30 complete transits of the passage were undertaken by a variety of vessels. The bulk of these voyages were Canadian, of which most were involved in the search for hydrocarbon resources in the Canadian offshore area of the Beaufort Sea. Between 1984 and 2004, a total of 23 commercial cruise ships and 15 recreational yachts accomplished transits of the NWP. Cruise ships operating in these waters doubled in 2006, from 11 to 22. The AMSA study concludes: “Modern history of Arctic marine transport indicate that despite the historical attempt to make the NWP a viable route between the East and the West, it is unlikely the passage will become the route it was originally intended11 . Thus, destination Arctic shipping is anticipated to increase incrementally in the years ahead mostly driven by the search for resources, in particular oil and gas.

The Hudson Bay Company started destination Arctic shipping to the area as early as in 1670. In terms of commercial vessel traffic, throughout the 19th century all commercial shipping in the Canadian Arctic was to the account of this company ending in 1913. Re-supply of commodities has been and still is the most stable element of shipping in the Canadian Arctic. Nearly all the voyages are destination Arctic coming from the Atlantic to support the sealift of cargo to local communities.

The war years brought marine activity in support of the United States Air Force construction of the airfield of Frobisher Bay and later the Cold War brought the mid Canada line (1947) and the DEW line (1954); all activities that required active marine support with some seasons having as many as 50 vessels on charter. The DEW line shipping activity segued into a combination of defence and community-re-supply which, with changes to ships, focus and administration, continuous today as a community life line.

Current shipping demand in the Eastern Arctic involves up to 22 seasonal trips and occurs during the 100 day navigation season that span from mid-July to the end of October (most communities receive at most two re-supply calls a year). Each voyage can include deliveries to 8-9 communities. All cargo is lightered from the anchored re-supply ship to a beach landing and delivered at the high water mark. Recently, marine operations averaged 100 voyages by large ships in summer.

Churchill is a prime trading port in the east. In 2004, 14 out of 18 foreign voyages to the Canadian Arctic called the port of Churchill, shipping wheat and grain to international markets. The first Russian shipment of fertilizer to the port of Churchill, coupled with perception of an extended sailing season due to global climate change, has renewed planning for establishing an international “Arctic Bridge” between Murmansk and Churchill. In September 1992, the Arctic Bridge Agreement was signed between Canada and Russia. The major goods that might become the basis for significant trade between the two regions are bulk commodities, mainly the export of an estimated 315 000 tonnes of mineral products and lumber from Murmansk, and a minimum of 600 000 tonnes of export grain from Churchill12 . The Bridge goes through the Barents and Norwegian Seas and proceed south of Iceland and Greenland before making a northward turn through the Davis Strait to reach Churchill in Hudson Bay (see figure 1. 9). It will then partly overlap with the transoceanic branch of the NMC (see below). For this bridge to materialize, Churchill will require significant additional port and rail investments, as well as further study by both countries regarding costs, cargos and volumes. The port of Murmansk is in need of similar improvements before this intra-regional traffic scheme – or intra- international route - can be realized.

In the western Canadian Arctic cargo is handled by tugs and barges, with most cargo shipped down the Mackenzie River to Tuktoyaktuk for transfer to ships with deeper ocean drafts. Current shipping demand involves 14-15 seasonal tug-barge trips. These operations take place in what has been labelled the Mackenzie River route11  – a Canadian intra-Arctic route of some regional significance. The western Arctic sailing season is typically 60 days between mid-July and mid-September. These are some of the more important destination Arctic shipping locations within the Canadian Arctic: the port of Churchill, the oil field at Cameron Island, the Nanisivik zinc-lead mine in the vicinity of Arctic Bay, Tuktoyaktuk, Cambridge Bay, Resolute, Pond Inlet, Inuvik and Whitehorse. It is anticipated that by 2020, annual re-supply demand will require up to 30 ship trips, and destination Arctic export shipping will probably include Mary River Iron ore, Port at Steensby Inlet, Roche Bay magnetite, Igloolik, Grays Bay and Bathurst Inlet (see Figure 1.9)11 .

Figure 1.8:  Transportation Patterns of the NWP 


Source: AMSA (2009)

The NWP has essentially no adequate ports with the necessary facilities to support the growing amount of commercial traffic along the northern slope of Alaska and throughout the Canadian Archipelago. Several ports have been proposed and are under development, but it is unclear if these ports will have the necessary facilities to meet the demand of increased shipping along the NWP. Currently there is a lack of adequate communication systems along the route. The United States have made few contributions in the development of adequate communication systems and services, while Canada operates with seasonal systems. The Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) is the primary agency along the NWP relative to rescue, safety and environmental response. Since the CCG icebreakers leaves the Arctic in the end of October there is a lack emergency response along the NWP on a year around basis. Longer active shipping season along the NWP raises a number of service level issues for the Government of Canada and United States.

The AMSA-report makes three important conclusions when it comes to the future economic attraction of the NWP: 1. Despite of climate change, the NWP will continue to be controlled by ice conditions at four choke points (see chapter 4), 2. It may be years before the Canadian Arctic matches the resources extracted when compared with Alaska or the Russian Arctic (see chapter 3). 3. Other transit routes are more attractive compared with the NWP (see chapter 7). A Canadian paper adds a fourth point, “ice conditions are widely expected to improve more rapidly in Russia’s Northern Sea Route than in the Canadian. It seems a reasonable conclusion that the NWP in a short and medium term will not be a serious competitor to the NSR or will open up to high volumes of international commercial shipping13 . Most Arctic shipping scenarios indicate an increase in cargo shipped in the years ahead, but the bulk will be destination Arctic and intra-Arctic and mostly resource driven.

Figure 1.9:  The Arctic Bridge 


Source: International Union of Railways. The Northern East West (N.E.W) Freight Corridor, Transportutvikling AS (2004)


  •  1. Pharand, D. (2007), The Arctic Waters and the Northwest Passage: A Final Revisit, in Ocean Development and International Law, 38:3 -69, 2007
  •  2. AMSA (2009), Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment, Report, PAME, Arctic Council, Terragraphica, Anchorage, April 2009
  •  3. For a detailed description of all seven routes see Arctic Marine Transport Workshop (2004), p. A-20
  •  4. Pharand, D. (1973), The Law of the Sea of the Arctic with Special Reference to Canada, University of Ottawa Press, Ottawa, 1973
  •  5. Marr, J. (2001), Impact of Climate Change in the Arctic on Ship Operations and Support Systems: A Mariners Perspective” in Canadian Maritime Law Association, 50th AGM, June 15-16, 2001, Montreal
  •  6. Falkingham, J. (2004), Sea Ice in the Canadian Arctic, talk at Arctic Marine Transport Workshop, Scott Polar research Institute, 28-30 September 2004
  •  7. Loukacheva, N. (2007), The Arctic Promise. Legal and Political Autonomy for Greenland and Nunavut, University Press of Toronto, Toronto, Buffalo, London, 2007
  •  8. US Presidential Directive (2009)
  •  9. EU Communication (2008)
  •  10. Arctic Marine Transport Workshop (2004), 28-30 September 2004, Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge University, Cambridge
  •  11. AMSA (2008), Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment, Report Draft, 14 November 2008
  •  12. Arctic Bridge (1994), An Overview of Trade Opportunities Between Russia and Canada Via the Arctic Ports of Churchill and Murmansk, Final Report, August 1994, Caribou Ventures Limited, Winnipeg, Manitoba
  •  13. Griffiths (2009)

Willy Østreng, 2010, The Northwest Passage 2, CHNL.© 

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