Monday, 12 November 2007

Backwards through the Northwest Passage

The BBC's ignorant glee last month in breathlessly announcing that 'for the first time since records began' (which turned out to have been all of 29 years ago) the Northwest Passage was 'fully navigable' reasonably enough drew veritable torrents of abuse for the simple reason that it was so obviously, cretinously wrong.

Not that this did anything to stop the corporation's claiming that this apparently freakish occurrence was due to global warming, though it is noticeable that most of the scientists involved were much less ready to point the finger.

The fact is that as the first tentative attempts were made to probe the Passage in the 16th century, then, later, on a much large scale after the Napoleonic wars, there had always been what sealers and whalers, by some way the most experienced sailors of these treacherous seas, called 'good' years for ice and 'bad' years. Good in their terms naturally meant less ice, bad more ice.

What, painfully, these navigators revealed was a vast, barely navigable archipelago of frozen Arctic wastelands. In the brief summer period when the region was navigable at all, waters that were free of ice one year would be impenetrably blocked the next.

Crucially, when the elderly and I am sorry to say obviously incompetent John Franklin led his doomed expedition to the Northwest Passage in 1845, a prime reason it took 10 years before any trace of his and his men's pitiful fate was found was that Franklin's expedition had sailed down a narrow strait, Peel Sound, that was normally permanently blocked with ice.

As Fergus Fleming put it in his supremely good history of the Northwest Passage, Barrow's Boys: 'It occurred to no one that Peel Sound might have been clear when Franklin saw it.' Intriguingly, when the first successful passage of the Northwest Passage was made, by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen in 1903–5, he, too, found Peel Sound free of ice.

I quote*: 'Having reached the northern entrance of Peel Sound in late August 1903, what had consistently been reported as an ice-filled barrier through which no ship could sail, he [Amundsen] found entirely ice free. He needed no second invitation.'

It is perhaps no coincidence that the BBC made no mention of Amundsen's voyage in its original report just as it made no mention of the fact that something in the region of a further 100 crossings of the Northwest Passage have been made since.

However, none of this is exactly news. So why am I posting about it now? Because yesterday on BBC News 24 there was a report by the BBC's environment correspondent, David Shukman, of a trip through the Northwest Passage he and a film crew had just made on a Canadian icebreaker belonging to the Canadian coastguard service.

The report was introduced with the statement that, 'For hundreds of years, the Passage has been impassable. Now it is navigable for the first time.' Well, clearly not.

Undaunted, Shukman, on the ship, then showed us a map of the Northwest Passage, pointing out the route that Amundsen had taken (despite the fact that the route was 'impassable').

I was astounded, however, that when he traced, albeit only with his finger in a pretty vague way, Amundsen's route, it was backwards, ie from the Pacific to the Atlantic when the Norwegian had gone in the opposite direction (which is sort of logical if you are starting from Norway).

Not to worry, I thought. He is only showing us the route and indeed the area in the most general terms. Except that he then said: 'And now we are going to retrace Amundsen's route in the opposite direction, from the Atlantic to the Pacific.' In other words, precisely the direction that Amundsen had taken.

With ignorance on this scale ... I rest my case.

* This second quote is not from Fleming but from a wonderful book, just published, called Incredible Journeys and written by your humble Brute himself. Available from all good bookshops, Amazon, etc. And needless to say, the perfect Christmas present. It is published in the UK by Anova, in the US, Canada and Australia by Reader's Digest. It is a reet corker.


Fidothedog said...

Floods = Global Warming
Famine = Global Warming
Rains late = Global Warming
Rains early = Global Warming
To much sun = Global Warming
To little sun = Global Warming

Yep a lot of money to be made and a catch all for lazy reporting.

The Creator said...

Ditto, earthquakers, volcanoes, hurricanes and tidal waves.

Fidothedog said...

Oh and lets not forget its a useful tool for the politicians to fleece us of our money.

Peter Horne (Saltburn Subversives) said...

I say Thomas, old boy, your book sounds like the ideal Christmas present for the old man. His copy is winging its way to me at this very moment. Of course, I'll have to read it myself first just to make sure he'll enjoy it. Cheers for that.
I anticipate a glowing "readers review" appearing on Amazon in the fullness of time.

Mark Wadsworth said...

I stumbled across something that said the Arctic Ice ain't melting, it's just been blown south by unusually strong winds.

Which, pace Fido, are no doubt caused by GW, but hey.

The Creator said...

One copy sold! The power of the internet!

Thank you, Mr Peter Horne!

The Creator said...

Bishop Hill has a lot of coverage about how the ice has been blown away. But what's important of course is that this, or something very like it, has been happening since Europeans first began exploring (or penetrating, as we historians like to say) the region. Hence good and bad years. But what gets me even more is not just the BBC's instinctive reaction that Ha! Global warming (aka climate change)! Told you so! It is that they were so entirely ignorant of the history of the region. Twats.