The Northwest Passage, an Arctic sea route that links the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, is a prized gem in the shipping industry—in many cases, it can slash thousands of miles off ship journeys, saving fuel, cash, and precious time.
So you might think that we'd celebrate the Nordic Orion's planned journey to become the first commercial bulk carrier to traverse the route since 1969. There's just one problem: the Nordic Orion will be able to make this journey only because of climate change, which has melted the thick ice that once prevented ships from easy passage. To add insult to injury, the Orion is loaded up with 73,000 tons of coal, according to the Globe and Mail.
Plenty of ships have made it through the Northwest Passage in the past, but the year-round ice cover has been thick enough to make the passage impractical for regular shipping journeys. The SS Manhattan, a commercial bulk carrier, traversed the route in 1969—though only after becoming trapped by ice. The ship encountered so many difficulties that the U.S. scrapped its idea to use the route to bring oil from Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico.
In September 2007, the European Space Agency announced that the passage had fully opened due to the loss of sea ice. The agency warned: "The strong reduction in just one year certainly raises flags that the ice (in summer) may disappear much sooner than expected and that we urgently need to understand better the processes involved."
It didn't take long for the shipping industry to exploit the new route. In 2008, the first commercial shipping vessel traveled through the Northwest Passage. If the Nordic Orion, a larger bulk carrier ship, succeeds—it took off earlier this month but hasn't yet made it through the Passage—it will be a signal that the route is truly becoming viable.
But just because it's viable doesn't mean that it's safe. As Scientific American explains, the Northwest Passage is still filled with ice even when the ice cover has thinned out enough for boats to pass through. Michael Byers, an international law expert at the University of British Columbia, told the Globe and Mail that he's concerned about Canada's lack of search and rescue capabilities in the event of an accident. "This is the kind of challenge that by all rights should necessitate hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars of fairly rapid investment by the government of Canada to ensure that vessels like this…if they come into the Canadian Arctic, they can do so in relative safety," he said.
It's not just big vessels that need to be guarded. It's likely that smaller ships—perhaps even tourists—will also try to cross the passage in larger numbers as sea ice continues to thin. Who will watch out for them?