Melting Arctic Makes Way for Man
Sunday, November 5, 2006
ICEBREAKER CHANNEL, Northwest Passage -- The Amundsen's engines growl low, as if in warning. The ship steals ahead; its powerful spotlights stab at fog thick with the lore of crushed ships and frozen voyagers. Ice floes gleam from the void like the eyes of animals in the night.
The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Amundsen weaves in graceful slow motion through the ice pack, advancing through the legendary Northwest Passage well after the Arctic should be iced over and shuttered to ships for the winter.
The fearsome ice is weakened and failing, sapped by climate change. Ultimately, this night's ghostly procession through Icebreaker Channel will be the worst the ship faces on its late-season voyage. Much of the trip, crossing North America from west to east through the Northwest Passage, will be in open water, with no ice in sight.
The Amundsen is here to challenge the ice that has long guarded the legendary Northwest Passage across the roof of the Earth, and to plumb the scientific mysteries of an Arctic thawing from global warming.
A relentless climb of temperature -- 5 degrees in 30 years -- is shrinking the Arctic ice and reawakening dreams of a 4,000-mile shortcut just shy of the North Pole, passing beside the Arctic's beckoning oil and mineral riches.
"Shipping companies are going to think about this, and if they think it's worth it, they are going to try it," says the captain of the Amundsen, Cmdr. Alain Gariepy, 43. "The question is not if, but when."
More ships will bring the risk -- the certainty, some say -- of accidents and black oil spills smeared on the white Arctic.
"This water is our hunting ground," Maria Kripanik, an Inuit born 52 years ago in a tent on the beach of Igloolik, told researchers who visited from the ship as it passed her village. There, hunters still use harpoons to snag beluga whales. "I don't know if the people here will like the idea of seeing ships all the time in our hunting ground," she said.
Equally wary are the scientists packed aboard the Amundsen. They occupy the Coast Guard ship for three months each year to study climate change in the fragile North, where the effects of a warmer globe are being felt first. They began this summer in Quebec City and churned west to the Beaufort Sea. As fall came on frigid gusts, the ship turned east again toward the Northwest Passage.
The Arctic ice pack rarely tolerates intruders in late October. It splintered the wooden ships of early explorers who stayed, seized fast the steel vessels that followed, and mocked dreams of regular transit through any of the routes in the maze of straits and channels of the passage.
British explorer John Franklin, whose search for the Northwest Passage transfixed the Western world, perished on a frigid island near here in 1847. Searching for him, many others fell. Their diaries, sometimes found by their frozen bodies, are grim accounts of waiting for a brief break in the ice, as starvation, scurvy and madness claimed them one by one. The map of the Arctic is littered with their names.
Finessing the Frozen Sea
A cool and careful Norwegian, Roald Amundsen took three years to thread these snowy islands a century ago. The Amundsen was built to follow its namesake. It is 323 feet long, with engines nearly three times more powerful than normal. The propellers, rudder and hull are hardened. The S-shaped bow rides up on the ice, using the ship's 8,500 tons to crush down through the pack. The Amundsen can maintain a steady march through ice four feet thick and can go through scattered 10-foot floes.