Unknown Waters: A Firsthand Account of the Historic Under-Ice Survey of the Siberian Continental Shelf by USS Queenfish (SSN-651)

By Alfred S. McLaren | Go to book overview

13
The Northeast Passage and the
Development of the Northern Sea Route

Essential for any student of the Siberian continental shelf region is to have a basic understanding of the often tragic history that attaches to this part of the world, which has only grown in geopolitical and economic significance over time. It is therefore worth devoting a few pages to review the most salient events that made this so, because all were to influence the preparations for, the parameters of, and the actual conduct of our expedition.

Being well above the Arctic Circle, with its severe climatic conditions and perennially thick pack ice, this unrelentingly cold and forbidding environment has sounded the death knell of an untold number of explorers throughout the centuries, from Viking times to the present. From the sixteenth century on, it attracted Western explorers and mariners searching for the fabled “passage to Cathay” and the riches of the Orient—what came to be called the Northeast Passage.1 In the twentieth century, the region was of vital strategic and economic importance to Soviet Russia, centering on the opening up and maintenance of the Northern Sea Route. The entire area remains a high priority for the post-cold war Russian republic, a concern that has undoubtedly been further stimulated by the unrelenting progress of global warming in the Arctic regions.

The Northeast Passage and the Northern Sea Route are often confused with one another but are actually distinctive parts of the same geographic area. The Northeast Passage extends from the Greenland Sea through the Barents, Kara, Laptev, East Siberian, and Chukchi seas.2 The NSR overlaps a major portion of the Northeast Passage, exclusive of the Greenland and Barents seas, and was the entry point

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