Guest Author - Dawn Engler
As early as the 1400's kings and noblemen sent explorers north of Alaska and the Northern Continent to find a passage that would shorten the trade routes from Europe and the Orient, connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. There was a window of opportunity, when the ice cap of the northern polar region melted, when ships could make it across the channel. When the ice melts, being the key. Many expeditions ended in failure, many sailors never returned home. The passage was first fully navigated 1903-1906 during a combination of attempts by Roald Amundsen, proving that there was indeed a Northwest Passage that could be traversed during the warmer months when the ice had receded.
Well, the ice has really melted. Each year, it melts some more. Occasionally, it doesn't melt as far as the previous year, but the ice has melted so much over time, that a passage now prevails year round. For the first time since the days of throwing a weighted, marked line overboard for depth readings, the NOAA, has started charting the waters of this passage.
How does this affect the Alaskans? On one hand, possibly quicker delivery of goods from Europe, and what about shipping out oil from Prudhoe Bay direct instead of piping it clear down the state? Maybe this could shorten the time to ship the fish and seafood that Alaska is world renowned for. Of course, on the other hand, regular usage of the channel will have impacts on the usual environmental issues as it does anywhere we humans tread. For one thing, the warmer water is already affecting the permafrost on the land nearby. Permafrost melting affects house foundations built on it and the roads are starting to melt. The ice melting will change how the currents flow across the continent according to NASA and the folks monitoring the ice cap for the last 30 years. Constant trekking across those waters will have to affect the wildlife that calls the area home. If the wildlife has to change migration routes, then the subsistence hunting of the native peoples is affected. Could they benefit instead from a port and easier access to delivered goods for their needs? Would they want to? My guess is the natives that live their lives using the old ways, do so by choice as much as by necessity.
Another issue is who controls the waterway? Canada says the rights are theirs. The US and Europe says the passage falls within international waters and Russia set a flag on the ocean floor to mark its territory. No matter how it turns out, Alaskans will be on top of what is decided here. The waters around the state and all that depend on that habitat will likely begin to see more traffic, and that will definitely affect how Alaskans live.