An Awfully Big Adventure ; A Hundred and Fifty Years Ago Sir John Franklin Died Attempting to Find the Fabled Northwest Passage. I N a Remarkable Twist, It May Soon Be a Regular Shipping Route. Andrew Buncombe Reports the Independent Magazine 27
Buncombe, Andrew, The Independent (London, England)
We were homeward bound one night on the deep Swinging in my hammock I fell asleep I dreamed a dream and I thought it true Concerning Franklin and his gallant crew.
With 100 seamen he sailed away To the frozen ocean in the month of May To seek a passage around the pole Where we poor sailors do sometimes go.
On a wall of the chapel of St John the Evangelist situated inside Westminster Abbey is set a white marble bust of a man dressed in naval uniform, his gaze fixed on some unknown horizon. Beneath it are some lines of verse, specially written by Tennyson, which read: "O ye frost and cold, O ye ice and snow, Bless ye the Lord: praise him and magnify him forever."
The statue is that of Sir John Franklin, one of Britain's most famed and celebrated explorers, yet a man who is best known for what he ultimately failed to discover: the Northwest Passage. Franklin died in 1847 while desperately searching for this fabled route - a way for commercial shipping through the Arctic sea ice and a short cut from the Atlantic Ocean to the treasures of the Pacific that avoided the vast and perilous journey around Cape Horn.
To this day the remains of Franklin and most members of his 129- strong crew have never been recovered. The bust in Westminster Abbey was erected by his wife, Lady Jane Franklin who commissioned several of the 20 or so Arctic expeditions sent to try and find out what happened to her husband. She, too, was the author of the words to "Franklin's Lament", a song made popular in the Sixties by the folk singer Martin Carthy.
Though Franklin never discovered a route through the Arctic waters - the winter sea ice stranding him and his two ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror - something remarkable is now happening in those previously hard-frozen wastes where he and his men lost their lives. Warming sea temperatures and retreating sea ice mean the almost mythical Passage could soon become a reality for mariners.
Some believe that within as little as a decade or two, ships from Europe could be regularly travelling to the Pacific through this new route, avoiding the Panama Canal and cutting up to 6,000 miles - and the resultant time and fuel costs - from their journeys. Other already existing sea routes, such as the so-called Arctic Bridge between Canada and Russia, are likely to be operational for a longer part of the year.
The implications of this are enormous.
Already a number of countries are scrambling to ensure they are ready to reap the benefits from what may be the most significant maritime development in centuries. Nations such as Russia, the US and Canada are fighting to protect their claims to Arctic waters while regional authorities and corporations are spending millions of dollars developing new infrastructure in some of the world's most barren and forgotten sea ports as they anticipate a gold rush.
"It's the positive side of global warming, if there is a positive side," said Ron Lemieux, the transportation minister of Manitoba, the Canadian province that is investing millions of dollars developing the infrastructure surrounding Churchill, a once decaying port on the Hudson Bay. "We have seen the potential for the Arctic ports. As we see it, Manitoba has always been a gateway to North America or Europe. We see it becoming a gateway to the world."
The port of Churchill, actually owned by a far-sighted US businessman who bought it for a token C$10 (pounds 4) from the Canadian government in 1997, is just one of many Arctic ports and cities that are likely to see a boom in the years ahead as companies and governments seek to make use of the retreating ice to develop new fishing grounds, previously out-of-reach oil and gas resources and even new destinations for cruise liners. The man who owns Churchill, Pat Broe, told The New York Times he believes the port could make $100m a year. He has already spent $50m upgrading the port, whose season as a destination port as part of the Arctic Bridge, he believes, could grow to 10 months of the year from its current four. …