The Northwest Passage in 2017

The time has come to start speculating about if, and when, the Northwest Passage will become navigable for the host of small vessels eager to traverse it this summer. The west and east entrances are clearing early this year. Lancaster Sound and Prince Regent inlet already reveal only a few area of white amongst the deep blue open water:

NASA Worldview “true-color” image of Lancaster Sound and Prince Regent Inlet on July 8th 2017, derived from the MODIS sensor on the Aqua satellite
NASA Worldview “true-color” image of Lancaster Sound and Prince Regent Inlet on July 8th 2017, derived from the MODIS sensor on the Aqua satellite

To the west the route is already opening up all the way from the Chukchi Sea to Cambridge Bay:

NASA Worldview “true-color” image of the Beaufort Sea on July 12th 2017, derived from the MODIS sensor on the Terra satellite
NASA Worldview “true-color” image of the Beaufort Sea on July 12th 2017, derived from the MODIS sensor on the Terra satellite

The problems on the southern route seem likely to arise in the central section this year, where far more old ice is present this year than in 2016:

Canadian Ice Service sea ice stage of development on July 10th 2017
Canadian Ice Service sea ice stage of development on July 10th 2017

The remaining sea ice in Queen Maud Gulf doesn’t look like it will last long, but the ice in Victoria Strait and Larsen Sound is made of much sterner stuff:

NASA Worldview “true-color” image of Victoria Strait and Larsen Sound on July 10th 2017, derived from the MODIS sensor on the Terra satellite
NASA Worldview “true-color” image of Victoria Strait and Larsen Sound on July 10th 2017, derived from the MODIS sensor on the Terra satellite

The cruise liner Crystal Serenity is anticipating navigating those waters once again this year, on August 29th. However much smaller craft are already heading for the Northwest Passage. Celebrate and Alkahest are already sailing north along the west coast of Greenland. Meanwhile Yvan Bourgnon is due to depart Nome, Alaska tomorrow, sailing his catamaran single handed in the opposite direction.


[Edit – July 22nd]

According to the United States Coast Guard web site:

The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Maple, a 225-foot seagoing buoy tender home ported in Sitka, Alaska, departed [July 12th] on a historic voyage through the Northwest Passage.

This summer marks the 60th anniversary of the three Coast Guard cutters and one Canadian ship that convoyed through the Northwest Passage. The crews of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutters Storis, SPAR and Bramble, along with the crew of the Canadian ice breaker HMCS Labrador, charted, recorded water depths and installed aids to navigation for future shipping lanes from May to September of 1957. All four crews became the first deep-draft ships to sail through the Northwest Passage, which are several passageways through the complex archipelago of the Canadian Arctic.

The crew of the cutter Maple will make a brief logistics stop in Nome, Alaska, to embark an ice navigator on its way to support marine science and scientific research near the Arctic Circle. The cutter will serve as a ship of opportunity to conduct scientific research in support of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

The Maple crew will deploy three sonographic buoys that are used to record acoustic sounds of marine mammals. A principal investigator with the University of San Diego embarked aboard the cutter will analyze the data retrieved from the buoys.

The Canadian Coast Guard Ship Sir Wilfrid Laurier will rendezvous with the Maple later this month to provide icebreaking services as the Maple makes it way toward Victoria Strait, Canada. The Maple has a reinforced hull that provides it with limited ice breaking capabilities similar to Coast Guard 225-foot cutters operating on the Great Lakes.

There doesn’t seem to be any up to date tracking information for the Maple, but CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier has recently arrived off Utqiaġvik (Barrow as was):



[Edit – August 18th]

Another article by Chris Mooney in the Washington Post includes this image of the eastern entrance to Bellot Strait on August 11th:

According to Chris:

After we’d passed through safely, Claude Lafrance, the ship’s commanding officer, took some time to explain how the strait worked with the help of a navigational chart. In the process, he lent credence to some of the observations made by Larsen over 70 years ago, while also explaining how modern knowledge has made navigating it safe with a proper tidal understanding.

The essence is that depending on when you are in Bellot Strait, the waters can be flowing either westward or eastward at and around high or low tide, respectively. So timing your crossing makes a great deal of difference.

The danger is that if you’re coming from the west (as we were) with the current to your back, you can be moving too fast, and have difficulty steering your vessel as you approach rocks at the end of the strait.

“We always want to go through where it’s more difficult, with the current against you, because it’s a lot easier to control the movement of your ship,” Lafrance said.

Therefore, the two-hour wait was quite intentional: The CCGS Amundsen stayed put until the tide began to shift and the waters to flow back westward, in effect neutralizing the current. Then the ship steamed out easily. “We just passed at the ideal time to go through,” Lafrance said.


[Edit – August 20th]

Another view of Bellot Strait, this time from Ernest Shackleton yesterday:


Here’s Sentinel 2A’s view of what he should expect to see in Larsen Sound after emerging at the other end:



[Edit – August 21st]

From the RRS Ernest Shackleton in Franklin Strait or thereabouts:



[Edit – August 22nd]

From the C3 expedition, also in the Franklin Strait area by the look of things:


[Edit – August 24th]

The latest CIS ice chart reveals a circuitous route via McClintock Channel that is ALMOST <= 6/10 concentration. Meanwhile Larsen Sound is still refusing to open up for the imminent arrival of the Crystal Serenity:



[Edit – August 27th]

At long last the CIS concentration map reveals a <= 6/10 concentration path along the entire southern route via Bellot Strait: Maud-Conc-20170827


[Edit – August 29th]

It is now possible to squeeze through Roald Amundsen’s route through the Northwest Passage without encountering over 6/10 concentration sea ice:



Coincidentally Amundsen’s Maud has started the long journey back to Norway from Cambridge Bay. Thanks to Matthew for the heads up


[Edit – September 3rd]

David Scott Cowper sought shelter for Polar Bound in the welcoming arms of Booth Island for a couple of days. Now they’re off again and have taken another close look at Cape Bathurst, but which route will they take now?



[Edit – September 10th]

David Scott Cowper has left Cambridge Bay in Polar Bound and is heading east:


here’s what lies ahead of him:


Watch this space!

17 thoughts on “The Northwest Passage in 2017

  1. From David “Duke” Snider, ice pilot aboard Nordica:

    Less [MYI in Larsen Sound] than charts indicate. More Second Year than old ice but still a challenge. Would stop non icebreakers in their tracks.

    plus a pretty picture of thick first year ice in Peel Sound:

    P.S. Plus the “old ice” in Larsen Sound:

  2. According to a United States Coast Guard press release:

    The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Maple reached the Northwest Passage Thursday during their historic voyage accompanied by the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Sir Wilfrid Laurier and crew underway in the Amundsen Gulf, Canada.

    The Maple crew has deployed a sonographic buoy used to record acoustic sounds of marine mammals and assisted the research scientist aboard the cutter analyze the data retrieved from the buoys.

    The crew used their buoy-tending skills and equipment to recover a high-frequency acoustic recording package (HARP) that is attached to the buoy. The device was developed by the Whale Acoustics Laboratory at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and is used to record underwater sound in a broad range of frequencies, including the sounds made by Arctic marine mammals. The crew also assisted the scientist’s with zooplankton sampling and measuring the properties of seawater at various depths and locations after a successful recovery and reset of the HARP.

    “One of our primary missions during this transit is to provide scientific support,” said Lt. Cmdr. Patrick Armstrong, commanding officer of the Maple. “Maple is scheduled for a year-long dry dock in Baltimore this August for repairs and upgrades. It is exciting to transit the Northwest Passage with an opportunity to assist with research aimed at understanding various species in this remote part of the world. Protecting life here begins with understanding it.”

  3. The Washington Post has a couple of reporters embedded on the Canadian icebreaker CCGS Amundsen as she makes her way through the Northwest Passage. Here’s the Amundsen’s current postion:

    Chris Mooney reports that:

    The original goal of seeking out the Northwest Passage to find a shorter trade route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans is still not fully realized.

    Ice conditions are still unpredictable, which is a major problem. “Yes the general trend is down, it’s declining, but the thing to pay attention to is the intraseasonal variability. There’s massive swings,” said David Jackson, director of the Canadian Ice Service.

    Ship traffic will still be limited to summer months for the foreseeable future. And there’s just not much infrastructure to allow ships to dock in ports or to provide rescue if trouble arises.

    But few doubt the overall trend: More open water, beginning earlier in the year and lasting later into the start of winter. And the route is getting more traffic — although there is skepticism about whether large shipping companies will be using the route any time soon. That’s why this mission — and charting the passage — is so important.

    Here’s how Peel Sound looked from the Amundsen a couple of days ago:

  4. Idly Googling Pen Hadow’s Arctic Mission I stumbled across another Arctic sailing expedition. This one’s called Mission Arctic, and they’ve recently had a good look at the Kane Basin:

    According to their blog post:

    The pack ice through Kane Basin was navigable under sail with favourable winds allowing us to make 5 or more knots for much of the leg, even through some of the more ice choked parts of the Basin. Believing Lady Fortune might be casting a favourable light on our expedition, and despite satellite images courtesy of the Canadian Ice Services indicating Kennedy Channel to be impassable to Exiles, we began to entertain hopes that sailing through the Channel and into Hall Basin and Discovery Harbour – the Headquarters for the doomed Greely Expedition and the Peary expedition to the north pole – might be possible.

    However, as we crossed 80 degrees, the satellite images proved correct: ahead lay only ice, confirming that, even for sailors in the arctic, science trumps mysticism (magnetic deviations and inverted compass readings aside).

    Now they’re on their way to the Northwest Passage.

    1. Tracking for Polar Bound on DeLorme has been turned off but there is a vessel north of King William island all alone that might be Polar Bound. I’m too cheap to pay to see the ships names – is that Polar Bound?
      Looks like the next 24-48 hours will be crucial if she can slip past the sea ice based on Canadian sea ice charts.

      1. DeLorme back on for Polar Bound. At harbor 20 km east of Cambridge Bay, so evidently another ship approaching Bellot Strait.

  5. Wildfires in Northern Canada are sending massive quantities of smoke across the Northwest Passage. Here’s the view from above:

    and here’s the view from below:

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