THE QUEST to find an ice-free passage to the Orient across the top of North America, which consumed European explorers for more than 400 years, has been achieved by a twin-hulled Canadian police boat in less than a month.
Ever since the Englishman Martin Frobisher was dispatched over the North Atlantic in 1576, there has been a fascination with Canada's icy extremities.
The fact that the patrol boat Nadon - renamed the St Roch II to commemorate the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's first successful completion of the voyage in 1944 - travelled from the Beaufort Sea, from Tuktoyaktuk in the western Arctic to the Baffin Strait and Greenland through open water without encountering pack ice, is raising eyebrows. It may mean assessing again the commercial possibilities of the Northwest Passage.
Having reached Nuuk on the west coast of Greenland on 3 September, the 21m aluminium patrol vessel is now going south to Halifax, accompanied by a Canadian Coast Guard supply vessel, the Simon Fraser. Coupled with last month's discovery by the Russian icebreaker Yamal of a mile of open water at the North Pole, the implications of the voyage are causing concern among ecologists. Some say it's further evidence of global warming.
The Nadon's voyage, originally planned to raise funds for the restoration and preservation of the original, wooden schooner St Roch, has led to more "history" than its organisers expected.
They had always planned a "side trip" in the waters around King William Island to use the Nadon's sonar imaging equipment to search the area where Sir John Franklin's expedition abandoned the ships Erebus and Terror in April 1848 after two winters trapped in the ice.
Although the sonar scan produced nothing, a local Inuit, Louie Kamookak, led the searchers to what is believed to be the graves and remains of five members of the Franklin crew. Graves of some members of the Erebus and Terror crews were found in the 19th century, but Jim Delgado, the leader of the St Roch II project, said this was an important discovery.
Although the Nadon's brush with history is interesting, it is the crew's observations about ice conditions that are seen as most relevant. "Concern should be registered with the fact that we didn't see any ice," the Nadon's captain, Sgt Ken Burton, said.
"We don't know enough about the Arctic to know if this is global warming or climate change. Or maybe we were just plain lucky," said Sgt Burton. …