The Arctic dream: The story of the conquest of the Northwest Passage

The Polar Sea, painted by Caspar David Friedrich in 1823-4 (©Wikimedia/Kunsthalle Hamburg)

For centuries, European explorers sought a westward route to Asia, a short-cut which would guarantee untold riches for their patrons. The Northwest Passage became a deadly obsession, and from the 1400’s right up to the 20th century, many ships and lives were lost on perilous ill-equipped ventures into the frigid waters of the arctic archipelago. Their main enemy was ice – vast walls of it seemed to block every route.

That ice may not be a problem for much longer. As a result of global warming, scientists predict the passage may be ice-free in the summer season by the year 2050. This possibility has attracted the interest of shipping companies worldwide. The route between Europe and Asia is about 4000 nautical miles shorter via the Arctic than it is through the Panama Canal. But what about the effects of shipping on this fragile ecosystem? Radio Netherlands’ Michele Ernsting traveled to the eastern Arctic to talk with politicians, scientists and the Inuit people who have lived in the region for thousands of years.

Producer: Michele Ernsting

Broadcast September 5, 2002