For many Americans, the Northwest Passage is a concept seemingly relegated to history books and grade school. However, the Northwest Passage has rapidly become an important aspect of geopolitics, particularly involving the Arctic Circle. The Northwest Passage is an all-sea route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and was a major driver in colonization of North America, as explorers and settlers sought to uncover it and profit from its existence.
With the development of advanced ships able to traverse the Arctic waters and the melting of glaciers and icebergs due to global warming, the Northwest Passage has emerged as a major factor in Arctic development among the nations who dominate the Arctic Circle. This is a brief history of the Northwest Passage and its relevance to world history today.
The Northwest Passage and the Arctic Circle
Following Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Americas in 1492, European colonial powers became fixated on discovering a riverine route that would directly connect the Atlantic and the Pacific. Such a route would make it far easier for European powers to reach Asia and engage in lucrative trade with China and India, as it would free them from having to make long, treacherous journeys around South America or Africa. The hypothetical route was dubbed the “Northwest Passage” because it was believed to cut through the North American continent.
Initial exploration of North America was pioneered by the Vikings, whose longboats enabled them to explore and colonize Greenland and even reach the modern-day Canadian province of Newfoundland. However, the beginning of the Little Ice Age in the 14th century resulted in the extermination of Viking colonies in this region due to far colder weather. European exploration of the Americas would not recommence for another two centuries, following Christopher Columbus’ journey.
In 1539, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés commissioned explorer Francisco de Ulloa to survey the Baja California Peninsula on the western coast of Mexico. Ulloa mistakenly concluded from his expedition that there was a strait connecting the Gulf of California, a bay separating Baja California from the Mexican mainland, to the Gulf of St. Lawrence in what is now northeastern Canada. This mythical strait was named the Strait of Anián and belief in it was exacerbated by the misconception that California was an island.
Ulloa’s expedition led to a flurry of interest in the Northwest Passage. The English explorer Sir Francis Drake sought to chart the Northwest Passage in 1579 based off of Ulloa’s reports. The Greek captain Juan de Fuca later claimed to have used the Strait of Anián to sail from the Pacific to the North Sea in Europe; the body of water he actually explored is now known as the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which separates Vancouver Island from Washington state.
Interest in the Northwest Passage subsequently shifted to North America, with explorers seeking to find an oceanic or riverine route through the Arctic and what is now Canada and the United States. Italian explorer John Cabot conducted several voyages in and around Newfoundland during the early 1500’s with the intent of finding the Passage, while Martin Frobisher would later conduct voyages in the Canadian Arctic in the late 1500’s. None of these expeditions were successful.
Rivers on the East Coast of the U.S. and Canada were also thought to be part of the Northwest Passage. In 1535, French explorer Jacques Cartier navigated the St. Lawrence River, believing it to be the Northwest Passage; his expedition was halted at what is now modern-day Montreal due to the Lachine Rapids. In 1609, Henry Hudson conducted several voyages up what is now called the Hudson River in New York, reaching as far as the modern city of Troy before realizing that the river could not be part of the Passage.
Continued mapping and settlement of the eastern U.S. and Canada led to the conclusion that none of the rivers in the area connected to the Pacific Ocean. In 1776, British naval officer James Cook was assigned to map the Pacific coast. Both Cook’s expedition and the subsequent Vancouver Expedition concluded that there was no Northwest Passage.
In 1804, following the Louisiana Purchase, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned explorers Meriweather Lewis and William Clark to survey the newly acquired territory. As part of their expedition, Lewis and Clark charted the course of the Missouri River, a major tributary of the Mississippi that took a long and meandering path through the western U.S. Initially believed to be the Northwest Passage, the Missouri was discovered to end in western Montana, and Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific Ocean without finding a sea route between the oceans.
Later scientific discoveries underlined why a riverine route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans could not exist. North America is divided into a number of drainage basins, areas of land where water drains into different parts of the ocean. The most notable of these is the Continental Divide, located primarily within the Rocky Mountains and separating rivers that drain into the Atlantic versus those that drain into the Pacific. No river can cross this divide, making a natural riverine connection between the oceans an impossibility.
Subsequent explorations of the Canadian Arctic, however, mapped out the course of the Arctic Ocean, presenting the possibility of an all-sea route connecting Europe and Asia. The use of the Arctic as a shipping route was all-but impossible at the time due to heavy ice concentrations and primitive boating technology. However, the combination of improved naval technology—most notably icebreaker vessels—as well as melting glaciers due to climate change has made the Northwest Passage a reality in recent years.
Development of the Northwest Passage as a shipping route has been hindered by geopolitical considerations. Four nations—the U.S., Canada, Russia, and Denmark—dominate the Arctic, and political tussles between the nations have resulted in diplomatic incidents. Development at the Prudhoe Bay Oil Field in northern Alaska has spurred Canada to more vociferously defend its Arctic territory, asserting that portions of the Northwest Passage are internal waters that it has the right to control.
In recent years, Canada has begun the establishment of an Arctic deep-water port to take advantage of Northwest Passage shipping. Russia has also begun the establishment of the Arctic Bridge, an all-Arctic sea route that will link the northwestern port city of Murmansk with Churchill, Manitoba, Canada’s primary seaport in the Arctic region. The United States has asserted that the Northwest Passage is international waters and that Canada’s position is in violation of international law.
The Northwest Passage, long thought a myth, has become a reality due to changing global climate and improved shipping technology. The value of the Arctic as a shortcut for ships traveling between the Atlantic and Pacific cannot be understated, and the natural riches of the Arctic further add to the region’s growing importance. It is clear that the Arctic Circle will become a major source of interest for the world in the years to come.