The Independent had a fine article this past Saturday on an imminent seminal event. It’s not often that one is actually able to predict these events, and this one has a number of ramifications, most of them negative, as a result of global warming:

Within days, a journey that represents both a huge commercial boon and a dark milestone on the route to environmental catastrophe is expected to be completed for the first time. No commercial vessel has ever successfully travelled the North-east Passage, a fabled Arctic Sea route that links the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific far more directly than the usual southerly cargo route. Explorers throughout history have tried, and failed; some have died in the attempt.

But early next week the German-owned vessels, Beluga Fraternity and Beluga Foresight, are scheduled to dock in the Dutch port of Rotterdam. It is the culmination of a two-month voyage from South Korea across the perilous waters of the Arctic, where an unprecedented ice-melt has at last made the previously impassable course a viable possibility.

This is a pretty big deal, as reporter Tony Patterson notes. For one thing, it means that there is now a potentially viable commercial route at least part of the year along the Russian northern border. For another, it means that Russia’s centuries-old dream of a warm water port might soon come to fruition. But it comes at a cost, of course:

The new route could transform Russia’s economic fortunes. Throughout history, the country’s search for a warm-water port that would provide sea routes open year-round has dominated the geopolitics of the region. But the economic advantages are balanced by the disastrous environmental news that the transit represents.

“This is further proof that climate change is happening now,” said Melanie Duchin, Arctic Expedition leader on board the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise, who added that the development put greater pressure on world leaders to agree a major emissions cut at their Copenhagen meeting in December. “This is not a cause for celebration but cause for immediate action,” she said.

Well, obviously. Whether that will occur is another question, however–The Independent in fact noted last week that not many minds are being changed in spite of the increase in the scientific evidence for human causes of global warming:

A significant proportion of the population have become more sceptical about climate change and the link with man-made emissions of greenhouse gases despite the fact that the scientific evidence has become stronger.

A survey of public opinion has found that 29 per cent of people believe claims that human activities are changing the climate are exaggerated compared with 15 per cent of respondents to a similar survey carried out in 2003.

About one in five people are uncertain about whether climate change is really happening, about the same proportion who had the same view in 2003, according to the survey carried out by Cardiff University researchers.

And this is in a fairly scientfically literate country as compared with the US.

More generally, we can now look forward to more intense Law of the Sea negotiations (which the US, having STILL failed to ratify the treaty after some thirty-odd years despite having signed it in 1994, is not a party to–even Bush tried to get ratification). And, of course, to the eventual (and perhaps sooner rather than later) opening of the Northwest passage to commercial traffic as well. The Law of the Sea treaty is relevant here because it represents the framework under which countries will negotiate who has rights to what–Canada, for example, is claiming the several Northwest Passages as internal waters, much to the irritation of other countries, and the US and Canada are in open dispute over these claims. While most of the Northeast Passage runs through waters claimed only by Russia, there’s that bit at the western end where Russia and Norway currently have conflicting claims. And, of course, oil and other resource companies must be salivating at the thought of viable commercial transport in the region, as well as generally less severe extraction conditions. The various disputes over conflicting coastal claims, it should be noted, relate more to seabed resource extraction than to navigation. Whether these routes will become major commercial routes remains to be seen. The weather is still crap most of the year, and at present the winter ice remains impassable. But the icecap continues to get thinner.

Still, there’s a psychological boundary being crossed here as much as a physical boundary, and it’s being felt keenly here and elsewhere in Europe, in countries that are generally much further North than is most of the US. Perhaps no nation has been as identified over the centuries with polar exploration–particularly the search for the Northwest Passage–as Britain. The names of polar explorers are engraved in the nations’s consciousness, particularly the tragic ones, and there have been quite a few of those. Patterson gives a brief capsule of the search for the Northeast passage:

Finding a North-east Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific was the goal of mariners and governments in 16th-century Europe because the route would have shortened the voyage to the newly discovered spice islands of the East Indies by some 2,000 miles – the equivalent of a year’s sailing.

However, most expeditions ended in disaster. The first attempt by the British navigator Richard Chancellor took place in 1553 but was brought to an abrupt halt in the winter of the same year when his ships became trapped in the ice. Chancellor abandoned ship and marched across the ice to Moscow where he was entertained at the court of Ivan the Terrible.

His fellow explorer Sir Hugh Willoughby stayed with his crew aboard ship and was discovered frozen to death two years later.

Another attempt in 1597 by the Dutch explorer William Barents ended with his ship being trapped and crushed in the ice. Barents and his crew were forced to spend the winter in a makeshift driftwood hut living on polar bear meat. Barents, after whom the polar Barents sea is named, did not survive either.

The search for the Northwest Passage was, if anything, even more intense. The British Admiralty for several centuries believed the Northwest Passage was a key strategic goal. And even when the obvious difficulties of such a passage became apparent should a route have been found, the British retained a strong connection to the concept. More broadly, polar exploration became a British obsession. Scott in particular became a 20th century defining myth for the British, but there were earlier ones–particularly Franklin, who perished in his attempt to find the Northwest Passage in the mid 19th century, and who, like Scott, also had a powerful and connected wife who found a fine career in the myth-making business for the rest of her life. The disclosure that Franklin’s expedition had resorted to cannibalism (although for an alternative explanation of the failure of Franklin’s expedition, see here) met with outright hostility from the British establishment, which then proceeded to ignore the claim for the next century. It was only after the passage was finally made by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen (who also beat Scott to the South Pole) that interest flagged–but the myth-making continued.

Northern Europe, perhaps because it’s much further north than the US (except for Alaska) takes global warming more seriously, perhaps, in part because it’s seeing the impact earlier. Check out your map and follow a line due east from New York–you’re in Madrid. If you head due west from London or Berlin, you’re in Saskatoon. If you head due west from Helsinki (and St. Petersburg), you’re in the middle of Hudson’s Bay, or , a bit further west, Anchorage. So we now have longer growing seasons here in Britain, for example, and less severe winters. I remember my first trip to Stockholm in the late 1980s, and Stockholm itself had just gone through a winter without snow. And it’s the Europeans who continue to lead the charge in attempting to mitigate the impacts of, and reduce the causes of, man-made climate change.

The global warming deniers remain out there in abundance. But the evidence continues to mount that the phenomenon is real, and is accelerating, testing the limits of our capacity for denial. When these ships arrive in Rotterdam this week, it will be one more piece of accumulating data. But it will also represent a different kind of passage–from a landscape of comforting (if increasingly archaic) myths to one where the landscape, changing as it does, becomes newer and a bit more hazardous every year.

The above Norwegian stamps, depicting threee polar expolration vessels, were issued in 1972. The Gjoa, on the bottom, was the first ship to accomplish the Northwest Passage, under Roald Amundsen during the years 1903-1906. For decades thereafter it sat and rotted at the western end of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park before being returned to Norway in 1972.

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