The Northwest Passage in 2022

After a quiet couple of years due to the Covid-19 pandemic there are numerous cruises through the Northwest Passage planned for the summer of 2022. Some (very!) small vessels are also currently scheduled to attempt that perilous journey. First of all let’s take a look at a map of the assorted routes through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago:

Next comes news of the expeditions planned by a variety of intrepid adventurers. According to Karl Kruger’s web site :

In 2022, Karl will attempt to become the first human to paddle 1,900 miles of the Northwest Passage on a standup paddleboard.

The article at the link is undated, but suggests that Karl initially intended to set off for Pond Inlet from Tuktoyaktuk in July 2019, but postponed the trip until the summer of 2020. By then Covid restrictions were in place, so next month provides the first opportunity for him to attempt the journey once again.

Another previously postponed trip is planned for this summer by the Arctic Cowboys, paddling in kayaks:

Until Roald Amundsen made the first successful sea crossing of the Northwest Passage (1903 – 06), this labyrinth of ice took hundreds of lives as explorers attempted to break through the icy barriers, hull crushing rocks and violent arctic storms to make the journey across the top of the world.

Since then, many sailboats and ships have successfully plied the Passage, though modern sailors still fall prey to the desolate elements. A handful of kayakers have attempted the journey and completed parts of the route in multi-year attempts, going over land and over ice, but no kayaker has made the journey in one single season and without portaging over land.

This is the goal for the Arctic Cowboys.

1900 miles in 60 days, across the top of North America.

Also relying on muscle power will be the Northwest Passage Expedition. According to the expedition web site:

In 2022 an international team of adventurers and ocean rowers will attempt to row the Northwest Passage, the arctic route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans considered the Last Great First. This expedition is only possible because the regions climate is changing, and the sea ice is retreating each year gradually opening the route from July to September.

The expedition will follow the 3,700km arctic route from Baffin Island, Canada, to Point Barrow, Alaska and will draw attention to the changing environment, collecting meaningful data for climate scientists at New York University and Big Blue Ocean Cleanup.

However earlier this month it was announced on the expedition’s blog that:

We are postponing the expedition until next summer (2023). We have had reports that the ice is not favourable this year and also we have had several supply line issues and are still waiting on kit ordered before Christmas in some instances.

I don’t know where those reports of unfavourable ice conditions came from, but to start our coverage of the Northwest Passage in 2022 here are the most recent Canadian Ice Service sea ice type maps:

There is currently no “old ice” near routes 5 and 6 via Bellot Strait. For more insight into the thickness of the “thick first year ice” en route here is the Alfred Wegener Institute’s CryoSat-2/SMOS merged thickness map from mid April:

Here too is the latest AMSR2 concentration map of the CAA:

All in all I currently see no reason why the passage won’t be open for “small vessels” later this summer. Whether it will be open for long enough to row or paddle through it is another matter entirely!

[Edit – June 25th]

Surface melt has now spread across almost the entire Northwest Passage:

“False colour” image of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago on June 24th from the MODIS instrument on the Aqua satellite

Watch this space!

9 thoughts on “The Northwest Passage in 2022

  1. It’s good to know that ‘climate change’ over the past 119 years has enabled small boats to once again make the Northwest Passage. Per Canadian Geographic:
    “On September 9, 1903, Amundsen sailed into Simpson Strait, south of King William Island in Canada’s central Arctic. The strait was free of ice to the west, and while he could have continued through the Northwest Passage in only one season, he was looking for a good wintering place, having decided to stay for two years to take continuous readings of the North Magnetic Pole”.

    His ship was 47 tons, crew of 6, considerably larger than these rowing expeditions, and they are benefiting from even shallower draft than the one meter draft of his vessel. Funny how much has changed in that 119 years, right?

    1. These days “small boats” can circumnavigate the entire Arctic in one summer!

      The Polar Ocean Challenge successfully completed their quest to sail the North East Passage and North West Passage in one season. The North West Passage was completed in an astonishing 14 days due to the fact that it was almost totally ice free. They encountered ice only twice in their 1800 mile NW Passage part of the voyage.

      A slightly different interpretation of Gjøa’s voyage from the Fram Museum:

      “It seems possible that the Gjøa could have sailed through the Northwest Passage in one season, because Simpson Strait was free from ice when the eastern entrance was reached on the 9th September.”

      Not to mention:

      “As early as September 2 [1905] progress was stopped at King Point, near Herschel Island, and within a week it was evident that another winter had to be spent in the Arctic. This time the Gjøa had much company because no fewer than 12 ships had been caught at Herschel Island.”

      Would you care to play “Spot the difference”?

      1. I’ll take “Spot the Difference” for $200, Alex (Tribute to ‘Jeopardy’).
        Answer (as a question): “What is Summer of 1903, when the passage was open westward, and Summer 1905, when cooler, icier conditions closed the passage?”

        In other words, by stopping to conduct his geomagnetic studies that winter of 1903-4, he missed the chance to go straight through. That’s climate variability for you. Maybe his climate models said it’s getting warmer every year, so he just assumed he could go anytime he wanted. Wouldn’t be the first person to be fooled by model results…/sarc

      2. Oh, and BTW, Jim. I’m sure you remember that the Polar Ocean Challenge made that voyage in Summer 2016, a year that was famous for another event: the last Super El Niño. Lucky timing, that. We’ll see if anybody repeats the feat this year…

          1. Excellent question, Jim. After a bit of searching and reading accounts, I can’t find a story about who was second to cross straight through, as Amundsen did. Lots of references to 2012 and 2016, when folks thought it would be routine. I’ll keep looking, but if you know the answer, please point me to it.

          2. Wow, thanks for the reference. I note with special interest:
            “ …first vessel to make a return trip through the Northwest Passage, traversing the more northerly route considered the true Northwest Passage, and was also the first to navigate the passage in a single season.”
            So 1944 after the late 30’s-early 40’s global temperature rise, was the first known season since 1903 when a single-season transit was possible. Interesting that the ‘northern route’ was open – there must have been considerably less ice that year than recently, or wind patterns and the Beaufort Gyre weren’t operating as they do now. I’ll do a bit more digging…

          3. The “more northerly route” taken by St. Roch was actually route 2 via Prince of Wales Strait.

            In case you’ve forgotten, last year USCGC Healy sailed through the Prince of Wales Strait where sea ice was conspicuous by its absence and water temperatures were over 3 °C the whole way. What’s more CCGS Amundsen took quite a while to locate some sea ice in McClure Strait later in the season:

            And your suggestion that “a single-season transit was possible” in 1903 is speculative to say the least!

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