Northwest Passage Across Northern Canada

The Northwest Passage May Allow Ship Travel Across Northern Canada

Sea with ice and cliffs - elevated view of ocean inlet on the coast of Devon Island, Nunavut, Canada, looking out to the Northwest Passage
Nivek Neslo/The Image Bank/Getty Images

The Northwest Passage is a water route in Northern Canada north of the Arctic Circle that decreases ship travel time between Europe and Asia. Currently, the Northwest Passage is only accessible by ships that have been strengthened against ice and only during the warmest time of the year. However, there is speculation that within the next few decades and due to global warming that the Northwest Passage may become a viable transportation route for ships year-round.

History of the Northwest Passage

In the mid-1400s, the Ottoman Turks took control of the Middle East. This prevented the European powers from traveling to Asia via land routes and so it spurred interest in a water route to Asia. The first to attempt such a voyage was Christopher Columbus in 1492. In 1497, King Henry VII of Britain sent John Cabot to search for what began to be known as the Northwest Passage (as named by the British).

All attempts over the next few centuries to find the Northwest Passage failed. Sir Frances Drake and Captain James Cook, among others, attempted the exploration. Henry Hudson attempted to find the Northwest Passage and while he did discover Hudson Bay, has crew mutinied and set him adrift.

Finally, in 1906 Roald Amundsen from Norway successfully spent three years traversing the Northwest Passage in an ice-fortified ship. In 1944 a Royal Canadian Mounted Police sergeant made the first single-season crossing of the Northwest Passage. Since then, many ships have made the trip through the Northwest Passage.

Geography of the Northwest Passage

The Northwest Passage consists of a series of very deep channels that wind through Canada's Arctic Islands. The Northwest Passage is about 900 miles (1450 km) long. Using the passage instead of the Panama Canal can cut thousands of miles off of a sea journey between Europe and Asia. Unfortunately, the Northwest Passage is about 500 miles (800 km) north of the Arctic Circle and is covered by ice sheets and icebergs much of the time. Some speculate, however, that if global warming continues the Northwest Passage might be a viable transportation route for ships.

Future of the Northwest Passage

While Canada considers the Northwest Passage to be entirely within Canadian territorial waters and has been in control of the region since the 1880s, the United States and other countries argue that the route is in international waters and travel should be free and unhampered through the Northwest Passage. Both Canada and the United States announced in 2007 of their desires to increase their military presence in the Northwest Passage.

If the Northwest Passage becomes a viable transportation option through the reduction of Arctic ice, the size of ships that will be able to utilize the Northwest Passage will be much larger than those that can pass through the Panama Canal, called Panamax-sized ships.

The future of the Northwest Passage will certainly be an interesting one as the map of world sea transportation may change significantly over the next few decades with the introduction of the Northwest Passage as a prized time- and energy-saving shortcut across the Western Hemisphere.

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Your Citation
Rosenberg, Matt. "Northwest Passage Across Northern Canada." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Rosenberg, Matt. (2020, August 27). Northwest Passage Across Northern Canada. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Matt. "Northwest Passage Across Northern Canada." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).