Ice-free Northwest Passage fuels Arctic warming fears

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The quest to find an ice-free passage to the Orient across the top of North America, which consumed European explorers for more than 400 years, has been achieved by a twin-hulled Canadian police boat in less than a month.

The quest to find an ice-free passage to the Orient across the top of North America, which consumed European explorers for more than 400 years, has been achieved by a twin-hulled Canadian police boat in less than a month.

Ever since the Englishman Martin Frobisher was dispatched over the North Atlantic in 1576, there has been a fascination with Canada's icy extremities.

The fact that the patrol boat Nadon - renamed the St Roch II to commemorate the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's first successful completion of the voyage in 1944 - travelled from the Beaufort Sea, from Tuktoyaktuk in the western Arctic to the Baffin Strait and Greenland through open water without encountering pack ice, is raising eyebrows. It may mean assessing again the commercial possibilities of the Northwest Passage.

Having reached Nuuk on the west coast of Greenland on 3 September, the 21m aluminium patrol vessel is now going south to Halifax, accompanied by a Canadian Coast Guard supply vessel, the Simon Fraser. Coupled with last month's discovery by the Russian icebreaker Yamal of a mile of open water at the North Pole, the implications of the voyage are causing concern among ecologists. Some say it's further evidence of global warming.

The Nadon's voyage, originally planned to raise funds for the restoration and preservation of the original, wooden schooner St Roch, has led to more "history" than its organisers expected.

They had always planned a "side trip" in the waters around King William Island to use the Nadon's sonar imaging equipment to search the area where Sir John Franklin's expedition abandoned the ships Erebus and Terror in April 1848 after two winters trapped in the ice.

Although the sonar scan produced nothing, a local Inuit, Louie Kamookak, led the searchers to what is believed to be the graves and remains of five members of the Franklin crew. Graves of some members of the Erebus and Terror crews were found in the 19th century, but Jim Delgado, the leader of the St Roch II project, said this was an important discovery.

Although the Nadon's brush with history is interesting, it is the crew's observations about ice conditions that are seen as most relevant. "Concern should be registered with the fact that we didn't see any ice," the Nadon's captain, Sgt Ken Burton, said.

"We don't know enough about the Arctic to know if this is global warming or climate change. Or maybe we were just plain lucky," said Sgt Burton.

But Canadian climatologists believe the Nadon's experience is evidence that the polar ice- cap is melting in the summer more so than it has in the past. Satellite monitoring indicates a reduction of 6 per cent in the ice-cap since 1980. The original St Roch voyage took 27 months. The first successful passage took the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen from 1903 to 190, to achieve.

Although the Northwest Passage is almost 1,000 miles long, a navigable run across the top of Canada would shorten the route from, say, Rotterdam to Yokohama in Japan by some 5,000 miles compared with the route via the Panama canal.

The original St Roch voyage was undertaken by the RCMP during the Second World War to assert Canadian sovereignty over the area and to supply Mountie outposts.

Canadian sovereignty is still an issue and it led to sharp differences between Canada and the US when the Mobil Oil company decided to test the route by sending a strengthened tanker, the US Manhattan, through it. The Canadian government insisted on sending a Canadian icebreaker to accompany it.

Prompted by the Middle East oil shock of the 1970s, drilling was undertaken to determine if the western sedimentary basin that runs from Texas up through the Canadian prairies extended to the western Arctic. Substantive reserves of natural gas have been found but little crude oil. The Canadian government commissioned designs for a Polar Class Seven icebreaker, which would be one of the world's largest. The project was dropped, however, when crude prices fell. But just in the past week, a Calgary-based petroleum company has announced a move back to the Arctic to begin drilling again. Some geologists believe there are pools of hydrocarbons in the Arctic to rival Saudi Arabian reserves. A large-scale find would create demand for an Arctic shipping capacity.

But a spokesman for the St Roch II project warned that before shipping executives became too enthused about a northern short-cut, there were two "major gates" to be passed through. One is off Barrow, Alaska, and another is in the north-south channel in the Canadian archipelago where the opening and closing of the ice "gates" is a function of the wind, not global warming.

And Mr Delgado, the team leader and director of the Vancouver Maritime Museum, does not think the North has been tamed. "The fangs grow back. It's hubris to think the human influence is going to melt the Pole."