Christopher Columbus might be the most famous man who’s remembered for utterly bungling his original mission. The Italian-born explorer was obsessed with the idea of finding a direct sea route to Asia to help his Spanish benefactors dominate the spice trade. But instead he landed in “The New World,” kicking off an era of brutal European colonization that leads many to question why we want to have a whole day dedicated to him in the first place.
Maybe if the climate had been a little bit warmer in 1492, the Taino people of Hispaniola wouldn’t have dealt with enslavement, massacres and diseases brought by the gold-seeking Europeans. In a warmer world, like the one we’re in now, the sea route through the Arctic Circle known as the fabled Northwest Passage, opens up more often and for longer periods of time.
Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen is the first person recorded to have traversed the Northwest Passage, along with six other men, in 1903-1906. His achievement came after centuries of failures, including that of British sailor John Franklin, who perished along with his entire crew of 128 men. After Amundsen, no ship was able to make the same journey until 1942. In 1944, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police schooner named St. Roch became the first ship to complete the journey in a single season; previous expeditions had been forced to spend winters frozen in place in the Arctic.
But as the 21st century dawned, Arctic sea ice began retreating further and further every summer. Then, in 2007, scientists saw the passage was fully open for the first time since satellite records had been kept. At the time, researchers were a bit surprised; conservative predictions had estimated the passage wouldn’t open up until 2012 at the earliest.
“We’re several decades ahead of schedule right now,” said Mark Serreze, a senior scientist at the University of Colorado’s National Snow and Ice Data Center, told Livescience.
One factor that many scientists think is responsible for accelerating the meltdown in the Arctic is a phenomenon called Arctic amplification. As the white sea ice melts, it exposes darker seawater that absorbs more heat than the reflective ice, causing even more ice to melt.
But what’s bad for the polar bear is pretty good for some human entrepreneurs. Taking the Northwest Passage cuts a ship’s journey between Europe and Asia down by 4,000 miles. And the passage is open so reliably often that cruise lines are getting in on the action. In 2016, Crystal Cruises plans to send 900 passengers through the newly opened gap.
For now, the Arctic winter still brings sea-route blocking ice…but for how long? We may eventually live in a world where the Northwest Passage is open and easily traversable year-round.
“The notion of coming to an ice-free Arctic Ocean even by 2030 is not totally unreasonable,” Serreze said.