Northern Exposure is a three-part series that examines how a warming Arctic opens up the Northwest Passage and economic opportunities, but also creates headaches.
Ask Tim Keane to recount his voyage through the fabled Northwest Passage and he’ll spend a good bit of time talking about the things that aren’t there.
“The scarcity of traffic, the vastness of the place, the total remoteness, that’s what I remember,” said the manager of Arctic operations for Montreal-based shipping company Fednav. Press him a bit and he’ll tick off some things that are there: “A few whales, loads of birds, the odd seal.”
But four years after the icebreaker Nunavik hauled a belly full of nickel from Deception Bay, Que., to Bayuquan, China — becoming the first unescorted cargo ship to cross the Northwest Passage — what still grabs Keane most about Canada’s Arctic sea route is its emptiness.
“On that route we never saw another ship honestly, never crossed within hailing distance of anyone for the seven or eight days until we got to the Western Arctic,” he said. “That was something.” Some believe that emptiness could be short-lived as global warming causes summer ice to recede and journeys such as Keane’s stoke enthusiasm about the Arctic’s potential as a new frontier for maritime trade.
Ships that have successfully gone “over the top” via Arctic routes such as the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route along Russia’s coastline have clocked major time savings: for instance, the Nunavik took 26 days to deliver its cargo, which is 15 fewer than the traditional voyage along the east coast of the United States and then through the Panama Canal.