Magazine article Geographical

Northern Exposure

Magazine article Geographical

Northern Exposure

Article excerpt

For more than 400 years, attempts have been made to exploit the icy seaway along Russia's north coast. Now, melting ice and the arrival of the oil industry may open up this short cut to the Far East for good.

SIR HUGH WILLOUGHBY has an unenviable claim to fame in the history of exploration. In 1553 he set sail on a trade voyage from London destined for the Far East and the riches of Cathay. Spain's control of maritime travel in the west: and Portugal's domination in the east forced aspiring explorer nations into new territories. Willoughby sailed towards the Pole around the tip of Norway and along Russia's northern shore, embarking on Britain's first voyage of Arctic exploration.

After entering the Barents Sea, he became hopelessly lost. The deteriorating weather conditions forced him and his two ships to spend the winter on the Kola Peninsula coast. The first British attempt at an Arctic voyage ended as the first Arctic disaster when, in the early months of the following year, all 66 crew of both ships died. Sir Hugh was said to have "congealed and frozen to death" as he sat in his cabin writing his journal. Other crewmen were also reported to have frozen in lifelike positions, plate in hand or spoon in mouths -- as still as statues.

Although Willoughby's navigational skills were questionable, his logic was sound. Even today, with the existence of the Suez and Panama canals, the shortest way to get from Europe to the Far Fast is still via the Northern Sea Route, as the seaway across the roof of Russia is officially called. However, explorers and merchants have historically been unable to exploit this geographical advantage due to an unbending resistance from both the place and its people. The Arctic's frozen seas have always laid on a hostile welcome for travellers, with Russian ideology giving them an equally chilly reception.


However, in recent years a remarkable thawing has occurred on both fronts. Climate change is melting the Arctic Ocean. In 1995 a Japanese voyage took just 13 days to sail from the Bering Strait to Kirkenes in north Norway.

Analysis by the Nansen Environmental and Remote Sensing Centre in Bergen has revealed that between 1978 and 1994 the area of Arctic Ocean covered by sea ice declined by 5.5 percent -- an area twice the size of Norway. Furthermore, global climate models predict a continued warming in the Arctic with increased retreat and thinning of the sea ice. By the end of this century, ice Cover may have become a seasonal phenomenon, only present in the winter, with the Arctic being ice-free during the summer months.

An equally extraordinary change has occurred in Russia. As far back as Willoughby's day, Russia has not looked upon the North East Passage as a global asset. In 1616 Prince Kurakin, the governor of Tobol'sk, imposed a ban on navigating Russia's Arctic coast, on pain of death, lest it encouraged foreigners to use the route. The communist Soviet Union adopted a similar approach. Consumed by Cold War paranoia, it turned the Arctic into a military front between the super-powers. All issues concerning the region became shrouded in secrecy to a degree uncommon even by Soviet standards.

In October 1987, Mikhail Gorbachov stepped onto this stage of political intransigence, his guns of glasnost blazing. "Let the north of the planet -- the Arctic -- become a zone of peace, Let the North Pole become a pole of peace," he pleaded in a radical speech on a presidential visit to Murmansk. But he wanted more than the region's demilitarisation. "Across the Arctic runs the shortest sea route from Europe to the Far East, to the Pacific," he continued. "I think that depending on how the normalisation of international relations goes we could open up the Northern Sea Route to foreign ships under our icebreaker escort." His words became reality when the route was formally opened for non-Soviet ships in 1991. …

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