By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM
Europeans have dreamed of a Northeast Passage through the Arctic Ocean since at least the A.D. 1000s. Efforts to open a year-round Northeast Passage along the Siberian margins of the Arctic Ocean made news in 1998 when an international team used icebreakers in the successful attempt. In 2013, Russia gave permits to 431 ships to attempt the passage, some of which were tour ships.
The Arctic Ocean is a formidable foe to ships. Nonetheless, establishing a year-round transoceanic route through the Arctic Ocean is tantalizing to European countries and to Russia. This route could shorten the trip to East Asia by more than 40 percent.
The North Polar Region includes the Arctic Ocean, whose winter surface is a relatively thin mantle of sea ice. Normally no thicker than six feet (two m), this ice is mostly frozen ocean water with some snow accumulation at the surface.
During the winter, sea ice covers almost the entire Arctic Ocean, with the exception of a few temporary open areas of water called “leads” (pronounced “leeds”). During the summer, the ice thins and melts along the edges of the continents and islands when the land warms.
Such generalizations, however, belie the fact that large slabs of sea ice, called “floes,” move with the wind and are capable of slamming shut hundreds of yards (or meters) of open leads in minutes. The power of these floes is enormous because of their size and mass.
The collision of two ice floes, one propelled by the wind against another anchored to shore, typically drives up huge pressure ridges of ice. These ridges sometimes rise to 30 feet (9 m) or more in height and consist of large pieces of broken ice in a jumbled mass.
These powerful jaws of ice can easily crush an unlucky ship caught in a closing lead. Should a ship survive a lead slamming shut, the ice pack could trap it for weeks or months until an icebreaker arrives.
In the past, attempts to find a Northeast Passage often ended in disaster. Finally, Swede Nils Adolf Eric Nordenskiold’s steam-powered wooden whaling ship made it through in 1880 after surviving a winter trapped in the ice.
The Soviets and Russians desperately have wanted to exploit Siberia’s resources. Major oil and gas discoveries in Siberia within the past 20 years are now driving an even greater need to provide oil tanker transportation. Access by ocean travel holds enormous economic possibilities.
The European Union, Germany’s Ministry of Research and Russia jointly funded the international expedition in 1998, called the Arctic Demonstration and Exploratory Voyage. Leaving Murmansk in April, two small oil tankers and two Russian icebreakers attempted the eastward trip to the Kara Sea at the very height of 1998 ice conditions. The purpose was to determine what would be necessary to allow tankers’ passage during the winter and spring. That trip was only marginally successful. Much larger tankers and new technology would be necessary to make such year-round efforts economically successful.
Two German freighters navigated the Northeast Passage westward from South Korea in 2009 and did not need the accompanying Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker. The September voyage, however, fell at the end of the Arctic summer when ice extremes were at their least.
Current large tanker technology remains inadequate to battle the Arctic Ocean’s winter conditions. One loaded oil tanker crushed by arctic ice floes would result in an environmental disaster of monumental proportions. Nonetheless, with the continuing effects of global warming on Arctic sea ice, year-round commercial traffic could become routine in just a few years.
And that is Geography in the News.
Sources: GITN #1016, “Melting ice increases Northeast Passage possibilities,” Maps.com, Nov. 20, 2009; GITN #472, Northeast Passage Opening, Mar. 1999; Weir, Fred, “New shipping lane met with joy, worry,” The Christian Science Monitor, Oct. 11, 2009; and http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/russia-moves-to-promote-northeast-passage-through-arctic-ocean-a-917824.html.
Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor. Geography in the NewsTM is solely owned and operated by Neal Lineback for the purpose of providing geographic education to readers worldwide.
More related resources from National Geographic Education
Activity (50 min) for Grades 6-8, Ages 11-14: Arctic Adaptations
Activity (1 hr) for Grades 3-5, Ages 8-11: Benefits of Blubber
Map: Arctic Seafloor
Map: North Pole Map countries stake their claim.
Encyclopedic Entry: North Pole
Encyclopedic Entry: Arctic
Encyclopedic Entry: Ice