Northwest Passage

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Northwest Passage
Image of the satellite " Envisat " (September 2007):
Orange line: The shortest shipping and trade route Northwest Passage
Light blue: " Northeast Passage " only slightly blocked by ice

The Northwest Passage is the approximately 5780 kilometers long sea ​​route that connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean north of the American continent . It leads across the Arctic Ocean and its marginal seas as well as the associated ocean roads through the Canadian-Arctic archipelago .


Graves of sailors from the John Franklin Expedition from 1845 on Beechey Island
Cook's 1775 map of Newfoundland

Early trips to the Arctic Ocean

Ever since Magellan discovered a sea route around South America to Asia in 1520 , geographers, navigators and researchers have speculated about a possible route in northern America. Since such a Northwest Passage would have significantly shortened ship journeys between Europe and East Asia, the seafaring nations searched for a passage in the Arctic Ocean for more than 400 years.

Possibly already in 1473, ie nineteen years before the ride of was Columbus , a Danish expedition under the direction of from Hildesheim originating Didrik Pining (possibly accompanied by the Portuguese João Vaz Corte-Real ) from the waters around Greenland to Newfoundland ventured. The Portuguese began fishing off Newfoundland around 1480. They were followed by the Basques and Bretons around 1500 . Between 1492 and 1495, João Fernandes Lavrador and Pedro de Barcellos sailed the waters between Newfoundland, the Labrador named after him, and Greenland. Subsequently, expeditions on land and water gradually felt their way further and further north-west into the icy maze of islands of the Arctic Ocean.

Find the passage

As early as 1524, the French king had sent the Italian captain Giovanni da Verrazzano to find a “northern passage” to India further north of the Atlantic routes dominated by Spain and Portugal. Also on the search for such a passage succeeded in 1534 the French captain Jacques Cartier , Newfoundland to sail around the north and in the Lawrence St. retract.

The English navigator Martin Frobisher made three voyages between 1576 and 1578 with the express aim of finding the Northwest Passage. He was followed by other English captains such as John Davis , Henry Hudson , Thomas Button , William Baffin , Robert Bylot , Thomas James and Luke Foxe , the Danish navigator Jens Munk , and the Greek Juan de Fuca for the Spanish viceroy in Mexico. In the 1630s, however, the search was given up for the time being, as Baffin and James were of the opinion that neither Hudson Bay nor Baffin Bay had access to the passage. It was not until the beginning of the 18th century that isolated efforts were made, including in 1719 by James Knight and in 1742 by Christopher Middleton .

The search for a passage in the northwest to Asia was also the reason for James Cook's last voyage to the Pacific in 1776–1779. However, because of the onset of winter on the Bering Strait , he had to break off his attempts . After Cook's death in a scuffle in Hawaii , Lt. Charles Clerke in command of the expedition. From the Russian port of departure, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky , they set off again, but failed at 70 ° 33'N on the pack ice , which seemed even stronger than last year.

The Russian Rurik expedition under Captain Otto von Kotzebue also operated from the Pacific in 1817/18 . However, they only explored the previously unknown coast of Alaska around Kotzebue Sound and ultimately ended without results.

John Franklin achieved tragic fame , whose missing third expedition in 1845 resulted in searches lasting several years. In the course of these unsuccessful rescue expeditions, Robert McClure was finally able to cross the Canadian archipelago for the first time with his team. He was hailed as the discoverer of the Northwest Passage, but received only half of the prize money because he had to leave his ship behind and walk a section between Banks and Melville Islands , where he was picked up by other rescue ships. Ultimately, only one other possible route had turned out to be impassable at the time. A section of a passage known since Amundsen was discovered by John Rae .

First crossings

The first complete nautical passage was made by Roald Amundsen 1903-1906 on the route discovered by John Rae through the James Ross Strait , Rae Strait and Simpson Strait on the small ship Gjøa . So he circumnavigated King William Island to the east and avoided Victoria Strait west of the island where the Franklin expedition had failed. Amundsen wintered twice on King William Island. He had spent a whole summer with the Inuit in the area around the present-day settlement of Gjoa Haven (in the Inuit language: Uqsuqtuuq ) on King William Island to gain their Arctic experience.

1940-1942 Henry Larsen crossed the sea route in the schooner St. Roch for the first time in a west-east direction with one winter each on the Victoria Island and the Boothia peninsula .

The first submarine to cross the Northwest Passage was the USS Seadragon (SSN-584) . The nuclear-powered submarine of the Skate class began its journey on August 1, 1960 in the Naval Base Portsmouth and drove through the Baffin Bay and the Parry Channel in the Beaufort Sea , which it reached on 25 August.

The American ship SS Manhattan, converted into an icebreaker , was the first tanker to navigate the Northwest Passage from west to east in just over four weeks. The trip, which ended successfully on September 15, 1969, was intended to demonstrate the economic efficiency of oil transports through the northern Arctic Ocean. However, the maintenance costs turned out to be too high due to the ice damage at the time.

The first cruise ship to navigate the Northwest Passage with passengers on board was the World Discoverer in 1985.

In 1993, Arved Fuchs sailed through the Northwest Passage in an east-west direction with his expedition ship, the Dagmar Aaen , and again in an east-west direction in 2003/2004.

In September 2008, the Camilla Desgagnés was the first merchant ship to cross the Northwest Passage on schedule. The passage was described as ice-free. In 2011/2012 Matt Rutherford (31) caused quite a stir when he was the first one-handed non-stop to sail around (North and South) America with his Albin Vega Saint Brendan . The Saint Brendan is the smallest ship to date to have mastered the Northwest Passage.

In September 2013 the large bulk carrier Nordic Orion passed the route en route from Vancouver , Canada to Pori , Finland.

In August 2016, NASA reported that the ice in the Arctic had thawed so much that ships could pass through the Northwest Passage. In the course of global warming , the sea water has been warmed up significantly (see Consequences of global warming in the Arctic ).


The extent of the Arctic ice sheet in 2007 compared to previous years


The sea route between Europe and Asia ( Rotterdam - Tokyo ) is shortened considerably: the previous route through the Suez Canal is 21,100 kilometers, the new route would have a length of 15,900 kilometers. On top of that, he avoids areas affected by piracy such as the waters around Indonesia or the Horn of Africa . Due to the climatic conditions, the Northwest Passage has so far hardly been economically viable, but climate researchers assume that this will change in the coming years due to global warming . In September 2007, ESA published satellite images showing the Canadian part of the passage (for the first time since records began) completely free of ice and thus navigable. The cause is a decline in the ice surface in the northern polar region to only three million square kilometers, one million square kilometers less than in 2006. At the end of August 2008, the Northeast and Northwest Passages were both free of ice for the first time. If it is usable, the Northeast Passage is even shorter than the Northwest Passage for the route from Europe to Asia.

The Northwest Passage can already be used for longer and longer. There are also advances in the construction of arctic tankers (not icebreakers). The economic development of the Northwest Passage is currently being intensively prepared. The creation of a service and security infrastructure for tanker traffic is planned. The expansion of the centrally located Inuit settlement Qausuittuq on Resolute Bay into a deep-water port is also being considered. However, there are also voices who question the usability of the passage for ships with great drafts.


With the growing economic importance of the Northwest Passage, its political importance also increases. Their ownership is controversial: Canada claims the sea route for itself, the USA regards it as international waters .

In 1985, the American icebreaker Polar Sea crossed the passage without a permit from Canada. Canada protested violently. Thereupon Canada and the USA agreed in a cooperation agreement (Arctic Co-operation Agreement) in 1988 that the USA would henceforth obtain permits from Canada, but that Canada should not refuse them. The question of whether the passage is an international body of water was not clarified. The territorial affiliation of Hans Island off the coast of Greenland is controversial between Canada and Denmark .

The USS Charlotte at the North Pole

In 2005 the United States Navy published pictures showing the nuclear submarine USS Charlotte surfacing at the North Pole . Canada then accused the US of again using its arctic waters without notice.

In the 2006 election campaign, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised to defend his country's territorial claims. Since then, several patrols composed of regular armed forces and Canadian Rangers have been conducted in the northern areas of Canada. In 2006, the Canadian Navy sent icebreakers into the Northwest Passage for the first time in decades. In June 2010 the government approved a program to modernize the Canadian naval forces ( National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy ), for which 33 billion Canadian dollars are available over the next few decades . Among other things, eight ice-capable ocean patrol ships are to be acquired to secure Canada's exclusive economic zone in the Arctic.


On ships with an ice class , including Russian icebreakers , around 100 passengers can travel through the Northwest Passage within twelve days. Otherwise, the Northwest Passage plays only a minor, but slowly growing, role for tourism. In August 2009, two cruise ships ( Hanseatic and Bremen ) with almost 350 passengers passed through the Northwest Passage from both sides for the first time and met in the middle in Gjoa Haven . Both ships now offer regular transits in late summer. Ships from Canadian and British tour operators have been sailing the Northwest Passage for a number of years. A French provider has also been added. Between 10,000 and 20,000 euros are required for the passage.

See also


  • Roald Amundsen : The Northwest Passage. My polar journey on the Gjöa from 1903 to 1907. With an appendix by Godfred Hansen . Langen, Munich 1908; again salt water, Paderborn 2012, ISBN 978-3-86444-326-8
  • Barbara Bauer: The Arctic Journeys of Francis Leopold McClintock: In Search of the Lost Expedition by John Franklin, 1848-1859. Südwestdeutscher Verlag für Hochschulschriften, Saarbrücken 2009, ISBN 978-3-8381-0959-6
  • William Dietrich: Northwest Passage. The great Columbia river. University of Washington Press, Seattle 1996, ISBN 0-295-97546-6
  • Arved Fuchs : Northwest Passage. The myth of a sea route. Delius & Klasing, Bielefeld 2005, ISBN 3-7688-1675-3
  • John Geiger, Owen Beattie: Frozen in Time. Unlocking the Secrets of the Franklin Expedition. EP Dutton, New York 1987, ISBN 0-525-24685-1
  • John Geiger, Owen Beattie: The Icy Sleep. The fate of the Franklin expedition. R. Piper, Munich 1992, ISBN 3-492-22113-0
  • John Geiger, Owen Beattie: Dead Silence. The tragic fate of the Knight expedition of 1719. vgs, Cologne 1993, ISBN 3-8025-2231-1
  • Voyages to Hudson Bay in search of a northwest passage 1741-1747. London undated (Works / Hakluyt Society)
  • Robert Kenn Ketchum: Northwest passage. Aperture Foundation, New York 1996, ISBN 0-89381-676-0
  • Peter Milger: Northwest Passage. The short but deadly sea route to China or the company of adventurers. vgs, 1994, ISBN 3-8025-2295-8
  • Elizabeth B. Elliot-Meisel: Arctic diplomacy. Canada and the United States in the Northwest passage. Peter Lang, Bern 1998, ISBN 0-8204-3826-X
  • Kurt Lütgen : The mystery of the Northwest Passage. 1967 ( German Youth Book Prize 1967)
  • Ansgar Walk: North flight. A fascinating journey to the glaciers and fjords of the Canadian Arctic. Pendragon, Bielefeld 2000, ISBN 3-929096-95-1
  • Helfried Weyer: Northwest Passage. Koehlers, Hamburg 1995, ISBN 3-7822-0638-X
  • Rudy Wiebe : Land Beyond Voices. Eichborn, Frankfurt 2001 (the original was awarded the most important literary prize in Canada, the Governor General's Award for Fiction , in 1994)
  • Sten Nadolny : The discovery of slowness . Piper, Munich 1983, ISBN 3-492-10700-1 (The life of the English captain and polar explorer Sir John Franklin, who because of his slowness cannot and does not want to keep up with fast-paced society, but on the other hand, because of this alleged flaw, has amazing insights into alternative human Ways of acting.)
  • Helge Janßen : Basic touch. Novel. Mohland, Goldebek 2011, ISBN 978-3-86675-151-4 (A factual novel about the stranding of a cruise ship on a bed of rubble south of King Williams Island. A German cruise ship ran aground in the same spot in 1986.)
  • Tina Uebel : Northwest Passage for thirteen innocent people and a yogurt. CH Beck, Munich 2012, ISBN 978-3-406-64701-7 (travel report of the sailing through the Arctic Northwest Passage; Uebel accompanied the sailor Wolf Kloss.)
  • Narratives of Voyages Towards the North-West. In Search of a Passage to Cathay and India 1496-1631. Hakluyt Society, 1849. New edition. Cambridge University Press , 2010, ISBN 978-1-108-00802-0
  • Martin Selber : ... and the ice stays silent. Mitteldeutscher Verlag, Halle 1987, ISBN 3-354-00232-8 (novel about the Franklin expedition 1845-1850)
  • Michael Meyer: Northwest Passage between the fronts . In: Hansa , issue 4/2019, pp. 20/21

Web links

Commons : Nordwestpassage  - Collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Across the Northwest Passage: The Larsen Expeditions on the University of Calgary's Arctic Expedition , accessed May 18, 2013
  2. George P. Steele: 10,000 Leagues Under the Ice . Ullstein, Frankfurt am Main / Berlin 1963.
  3. The Expedition ( Memento from January 26, 2007 in the Internet Archive )
  4. 1st commercial ship sails through Northwest Passage - The passage of the Camilla Desgagnés on cbc-news ( Memento from March 14, 2009 in the Internet Archive ) (English)
  5. The passage of Camilla Desgagnés at alaskadispatch ( Memento of the original of October 27, 2010 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. (English) @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  6. Northwest Passage with the smallest boat OCC Award ( Memento of the original from April 8, 2016 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link has been inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. not available on December 26, 2018. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  7. Matt wins the OCC's Jester award for 2012 posted February 1, 2013, accessed December 26, 2018.
  8. Red Dot on the Ocean - The Matt Rutherford Story: A Feature-Length Documentary Film Video (2:51), accessed December 26, 2018 - 309 days, 27,000 miles, 27 foot long sailing ship.
  9. Frank Patalong, Christoph Seidler: Arctic Northwest Passage: Dangerous Shortcuts Through Ice In:, September 27, 2013, accessed on December 26, 2018 - with reports on various experiments.
  10. Satellite image of the week: Free travel through the Northwest Passage Spiegel online , August 21, 2016, accessed December 26, 2018.
  11. Record melt in the Arctic - Northwest Passage ice-free on
  12. ↑ Melting ice: Ships will soon be able to travel through the Northwest Passage on
  13. Northwest Passage without ice on
  14. Northwest Passage completely free of ice on
  15. Northeast and Northwest Passage for the first time ice-free at the same time on:
  16. Paul Waldie: Baffinland CEO says no to shipping ore through Northwest Passage , The Globe and Mail, October 18, 2013, accessed January 9, 2016.
  17. Peter Diekmeyer: Defending the true north . In: Jane's Defense Weekly , May 15, 2013, pp. 23–27 (English)
  18. National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy ( Memento of the original from May 22, 2013 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was automatically inserted and not yet checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. from the official website of the Canadian Department of Defense, accessed May 15, 2013 @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  19. Adventure and Travel: Eiskalter Zauber , November 2012 issue, p. 32 ff
  20. Publisher information ( Memento of the original from March 4, 2016 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was automatically inserted and not yet checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /