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Northwest Passage Presents Economic Opportunities, Ecologic Responsibilities

Published On: Nov 21 2013 04:45:00 PM AKST

Reporter Steve MacDonald gives a brief history of Captain Cook's failed attempt at finding the Northwest Passage in the Arctic waters over 100 years ago and how that relates to Alaskans today. 


In 1778 one of the world's greatest explorers set off to find the fabled Northwest Passage. Captain James Cook set off for the Arctic Ocean looking for the shortcut that would connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

He headed north along the coast of Alaska, finally reaching the Arctic Ocean. But after two frustrating years of trying to find a path through the thick sea ice, Cook gave up.

If there was a Northwest Passage, it lay hidden behind the ever present ice that choked the Arctic waters. It turns out that Captain Cook and other explorers were right. There is a shortcut through the Arctic connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. If only they could have waited 200 years the path would have revealed itself.

In fact, cruise ships anchored off the coast of Barrow are becoming a familiar sight in the Alaska Arctic during summer.

They are able to make the trip because the ice that hindered Captain Cook no longer exists during the summer months.

Summer sea ice that used to be visible close to shore during June, July and August is now retreating hundreds of miles out to sea leaving open water in the Arctic Ocean.

Hajo Eicken is one of the leading researchers of climate change and the effects it is having on Alaska. Eicken is also a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

While many experts may differ over what's causing climate change, Eicken says there is no doubt that the Alaskan Arctic is ground zero when it comes to its impact.

He says the region has undergone dramatic changes in just the past three decades. During that time the Arctic has lost about 50 percent of its ice during the summer months. He says the greatest loss of ice occurred in 2012.

The loss of sea ice is having a profound impact on the people who live in the region, Eicken said.

“The ice used to be almost like a sheet of plywood, if you will, sitting atop the ocean, so that kept the waves down,” Eicken said. “Now that we don't have that, we have seen waves increasing in size, and, of course, that has an impact on the shoreline."

Those larger waves are eroding the coastline.

In villages like Shishmaref plans are underway to relocate residents more inland. According to the Army Corp of Engineers, another 160 Alaska villages are also being threatened by erosion.

Wildlife is also feeling the loss of the ice. Normally walruses haul out on ice in shallow water where they can dive for food. But, with the ice retreating this summer, the marine mammals instead gathered on land near Point Lay.

Despite the challenges to people and wildlife, climate change may also present economic opportunities for Alaska. The increase in ship traffic may mean more tourists visiting parts of the state that don't normally get many visitors.

Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo of the U.S Coast Guard says an ice free Arctic Ocean in summer could be on the same level as when the Panama Canal opened. Ostebo predicts unless sea ice returns in the future, ship traffic off Alaska's north coast during summer will continue to grow.

However, with the increase in activity comes added responsibility for the Coast Guard. When it comes to the possibility of a marine accident in the Arctic Ocean, Ostebo said "it's not a matter of if, but when it will happen."

To be prepared the Coast Guard has been deploying more ships and helicopters in Northern Alaska during the summer months. The Admiral says that practice will continue.

Meanwhile, the ice in Alaska's Arctic Ocean began forming earlier this fall compared to recent years. But, researchers like Eicken say that's not enough evidence to call it a trend. He says the long-term forecast for the Arctic calls for ice to continue retreating during summer.

For Alaskans and the wildlife that call the region home, it appears they will have to adapt.