Wow, just read another article about the end of the polar ice cap. It’s amazing to think that the Arctic Ocean is fast becoming navigable. It’s not an if anymore, but a when. Almost daily there are reports in the news and articles in the press about warming air and warming seas. This article in the Atlantic, Huge Waves in the Arctic Demonstrate Ice Loss—and Aggravate It, explains how enormous waves in the arctic ocean, formed in the newly open water and stirred by the increasing winds that come with open water, melt the ice cap even more, creating more open water, more winds, then more open water, more winds, more open water…. It’s a process we can actually see, in real time. It’s nothing like the invisible CO2 build up, or the incremental (if inexorable) temperature rises. These are just great oceanic swells in an open ocean. Beautiful blue water for miles. Broken bits of icebergs floating, melting. The waves slosh and wash and crash against the ice pack, wearing it down, breaking it up, melting it away. White ice becomes beautiful blue water. Inclement weather kicks up wind, as inclement weather does, just like winds kick up on a real unfrozen ocean, an ocean you can’t walk on this side of Jesus, an ocean that won’t freeze you in solid, trapped, doomed. An ocean that a hard shelled boat, not necessarily an icebreaker even, just not too flimsy, can move through, transporting goods or people or resources along the Northern Sea Route.
That’s what they call the open water which lies year round along the Siberian Arctic coast, the Northern Sea Route. Freighters ply the route now, from Europe to the Far East, where once they crossed the Indian Ocean. It’s a third less distance (and no pirates). There’s no dust, they say, and no smog. The water is a deep blue and the ice floating by a range of gorgeous pastels. New sea life, abhorring a vacuum, has moved in, or begun staying year round. It’s a brand new world. The ancient arctic creatures cling to shore. The arctic foxes lose their snow white sheen. On shore the mosquitos and black flies are in clouds thicker than ever. Roads and villages disappear into liquefying permafrost, and great holes appear, unexplained. Travel overland is treacherous. Offshore, though, a few miles beyond the land, the water is blue and the going smooth and lovely and profitable.
But thinking beyond, two or three decades from now, merchant ships will no longer be hugging the Siberian coast like ancient galleys followed the Mediterranean coast, terrified of storms. Entire new trade routes will open up, intercontinental routes. Perhaps within a generation, and definitely within two, you could travel from Chicago in the middle of North America to Novosibirsk in the middle of Asia on a seagoing vessel. You’d leave Chicago and sail though various Great Lakes and up the St. Lawrence and into the Atlantic between Labrador and Greenland. A larger vessel then would continue on a northeasterly course, rounding Greenland and heading toward Siberia by passing north of Iceland and south of Svalbard. A smaller vessel, though, could slip west into a blue water passage through Nunavut (née Northwest Territories) that leads to other passages between the islands in the Canadian Arctic and follow the fishing fleets and tramp steamers and cruise ships past Ellesmere Island and into the open Arctic Ocean. What a sight that will be, a grand vista of the deepest blue. Dolphins, new to these waters, will splash along side. Whales will loll and spout. The ocean waters, free of year round ice and warmed and lit by the sun, will explode with plankton, krill and pelagic fish. The glorious summer light never turns to darkness over the entire trans-oceanic trek, and perhaps your ship will take you over the Pole itself, where northward turns instantly southward. Then on the far side of the Arctic Ocean you’ll enter the Kara Sea, within sight of Siberia, then continue into the narrow gulf that is the largest riverine estuary in the world, hundreds of miles long, beginning in tundra and ending deep in the taiga. There you’d enter the mouth of the Ob River and fresh water. The final leg is southbound up the Ob, surrounded by the vast Siberian forests that fade after a thousand miles into endless, treeless steppe. The nights lengthen, the moon and stars reappear. Finally, after two thousand miles on the river you dock at the sprawling metropolis of Novosibirsk. A journey entirely by water from the center of one immense continent into the center of an even more immense continent by way of an ocean that was once icebound and impassable.
This isn’t a possible future. It’s not science fiction. It is the future. And while we dread the environmental catastrophe that accompanies it, the mass extinctions and desertification and struggles for water towards the equator, there are young entrepreneurs right now in Siberia and Greenland and struggling Inuit communities dreaming about all of this. Dreaming of new ports and new cities and new trade routes. A few of these dreamers will die fabulously wealthy old men, and their walls will be adorned with pictures of polar bears and igloos and glaciers and icebergs, and they’ll tell their grandkids stories of the old days, when you could walk all the way to the North Pole. Their grandkids will look across all that blue water and not believe a word of it.
Northern sea route, 2013.