Northwest Passage

For the past several summers, vast stretches of the Northwest Passage have been ice-free. If the trend continues, the once-impenetrable waterway will be accessible by all types of vessels, from oil tankers to cruise ships. (Irene Owsley Spector / For The Times)

For 500 years, explorers nudged their ships through these Arctic waters, vainly seeking a shortcut to the riches of the East. The Northwest Passage, a deadly maze of sea ice, narrow straits and misshapen islands, still holds the traces of those who failed.

There are feeble cairns, skeletons lying face down where explorers fell, makeshift camps piled high with cannibalized bones and, on one rocky spit, a trio of wind-scoured tombstones. Whole expeditions, hundreds of men and entire ships, are missing to this day. The first explorer to survive a crossing, in 1906, spent several winters trapped by ice.

Despite that -- or maybe because of it -- Canadian Mountie Ken Burton wanted nothing more than to join the pantheon of polar explorers who had threaded their ships through the passage's narrow ice leads and around its shimmering blue-green icebergs.

In the summer of 2000, Burton gingerly nosed a 66-foot aluminum patrol boat into the heart of the Northwest Passage. Ice floes could crumple the boat like paper. Even the smallest iceberg, a growler, could rip apart its delicate hull.

But there were no bergs. No growlers. No thin cakes of pancake ice. To his surprise, Burton found no ice at all. A mere 900 miles south of the North Pole, where previous explorers had faced sheets of punishing pack ice, desperation and finally death, Burton cruised past emerald lagoons and long sandy beaches. Crew members stripped and went swimming. Burton whipped through the passage, "not hurrying," in a mere 21 days.

"We should not, by any measure, have been able to drive an aluminum boat through the Arctic," said Burton, still astonished and just slightly disappointed. "It was surreal."

It was also a glimpse of the future. For several summers now, vast stretches of the Northwest Passage have been free of ice, open to uneventful crossings by the flimsiest of boats. Climate experts now blandly predict what once was unimaginable: In 50 years or less, the passage will be free of ice throughout the summer, a prospect that could transform the region and attract a flotilla of cruise ships, oil supertankers and even U.S. warships.

"It's something no one would have dreamed up for our lifetime," said Lawson Brigham, deputy director of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission and former captain of the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea, which made it through the passage in 1994.

The parting of the ice is the product of natural, long-term atmospheric patterns that have warmed the Arctic in recent decades and, to a lesser extent, the gradual heating of the planet by greenhouse gases.

The planet's temperature has risen 1 degree Fahrenheit over the last century. In the Arctic, temperatures have risen 3 to 4 degrees. In these northern seas, at the boundary between water and ice, that small difference has changed the landscape for thousands of miles.

"The image of the Arctic was always one of an ice-locked, forbidden spot," said James P. Delgado, director of the Vancouver Maritime Museum and author of "Across the Top of the World: The Quest for the Northwest Passage." "If we as a species have wrought this change, it's humbling, given its history as such a terror-filled place."

'Panama Canal North'

The receding ice is throwing open a gateway to the Far North, a region long defined by its isolation, sparse population and stark, simple beauty. Ship traffic could carry with it a rush of civilization and commerce.

"It's not just about transport; it's about the whole development of the Arctic frontier," said Lynn Rosentrater, a climate-change officer with the World Wildlife Fund in Norway. "It's going to happen, so we need to plan for it."

The once-deadly route has been re-christened "Panama Canal North" by shippers eager to shave nearly 5,000 miles off the trip from Europe to Asia. Already, a parade of strange ships and faces is streaming through the passage. Canadian transit officials who monitor the route dub the newcomers "UFOs," for "unaccustomed floating objects."

These have included, in the last few years, a Russian tug that dragged a five-story floating dry dock through the passage, adventurers skimming through in sleek sailboats and a boatload of Chinese sailors that arrived unannounced in the Arctic village of Tuktoyaktuk, disembarked to take photographs and left abruptly when a local Mountie arrived.

This summer, the Canadian navy sent warships north of the Arctic Circle for the first time since the end of the Cold War. And U.S. naval officers are circulating a report called "Naval Operations in an Ice-Free Arctic" that discusses, among other things, the need for a new class of ice-strengthened warship to patrol newly opening Arctic waters.

The Northwest Passage winds through land so far north it doesn't appear on most maps, a rolling tundra cut by wild rivers and deep fiords dotted with icebergs, walruses and ghostly white beluga whales. It is too far north for trees or shrubs, too far north for paved roads and, in most places, too far north for people.

The Inuit-controlled territory Nunavut, which includes much of the passage and stretches across 750,000 square miles, is home to just 26,745 people. That's like sprinkling the population of South Pasadena into a few villages in an area 4 1/2 times the size of California.