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An elusive passage emerges.

When Alejandro Malaspina and his crew set off from Mexico in search of the Northwest Passage, his expedition was one of many Spanish voyages sent to reconnoiter the northern reaches of the continent (and thus strengthen Spanish claims in the New World). Sea captains believed that the entrance to the fabled "Strait of Anian," connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific, lurked among the inlets. bays, and fiords of what is now western Canada.

British explorers, meanwhile, having exhausted the possibility of finding a viable sea route from the east coast of North America. also sought the elusive passage among the waterways of the northwest. Given the alternative--a punishing trip around South America--their wishful thinking is easy to understand.

The sometimes confrontational sometimes cooperative ventures undertaken by British and Spanish explorers led to an inescapable conclusion: No practical shortcut crossed the continent. If a channel existed, it lay hidden under dense northern ice.

Subsequent forays into the Arctic were mostly scientific (sometimes doomed) expeditions. The Norwegian Roald Amundsen forged a northwest voyage from Norway through Baffin Bay to Alaska. completing an epic three-year journey in 1906. But commercial interests turned the attention southward to the more promising Panama Canal, relegating the quest for the Northwest Passage to a historical footnote.

Now, as Panama Canal shipping copes with rising costs, congestion, and size limits--a major expansion is in its early stages--the Northwest Passage is once again in the spotlight. In recent years icebreakers, military ships, and submarines have traversed its newly opened channels. These routes lie far to the north, mostly above the Arctic Circle. but their winding paths through Canada's Arctic islands save thousands of miles compared with the route through the Panama Canal.


Even so, there's no cause for celebration. The potential opening of Arctic shipping lanes is a direct result of global climate change: The ice that once covered the watery passages and formed an impenetrable barrier to sea travel has been melting at unprecedented rates. What's more. polar regions have proven especially vulnerable to global warming. In 2007 the Arctic sea ice reached a historic low, and scientists have warned that the North Pole may be moving toward ice-free summers.

The loss of habitat and disruptions to food sources that result from melting ice threaten the survival of Arctic wildlife and the communities that depend on it. A lone polar bear stranded and adrift on an ice floe has come to symbolize the plight of Arctic animals.

As the possibility of commerce along the once-mythical Northwest Passage grows, world powers vie for control, challenging Canada's claim to sovereignty over the waterways threading its northern archipelago. The planting of a Russian flag on the Arctic sea floor last year sparked widespread consternation over Arctic shipping and energy extraction and the ensuing risks to the environment.

Meanwhile. "Northwest Passage Tours" attract a new population northward: tourists lured by the prospect of being the first to pioneer excursions through the legendary Northwest Passage or perhaps the last to view its dwindling Arctic wildlife.

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Title Annotation:Northwest Passage
Author:Wyels, Joyce Gregory
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:0ARCT
Date:Sep 1, 2008
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