The Arctic Ocean is the northernmost body of water in the world. It surrounds the North Pole. It is also the smallest ocean in the world and the least-known both in its geography and history.
The land surrounding the Arctic Ocean has been inhabited for millennia by people who have adapted to living in such harsh conditions. It appears that the ancient Greeks knew about it. In the so-called Dark Ages, Europeans forgot about it. They only started to show interest in the Age of Exploration.
It’s commonplace these days to dismiss Christopher Columbus as a latecomer to the “new world,” But European society had long forgotten whichever earlier explorers had found the Western Hemisphere.
With the Ottoman Empire firmly in control of the major trade routes between Europe and the Orient, European kings had keen interest in finding a sea route that would go in the opposite direction.
Some early expeditions to find the Northwest Passage
English explorer John Cabot landed on what are now the Canadian Maritime Islands in 1497, thinking he had reached Asia. King Henry VII sent him on a larger expedition the following year, but Cabot and his crew probably perished at sea.
The first French explorer had better luck. Jacques Cartier led three expeditions between 1534 and 1541. He found the St. Lawrence River and is credited with founding Quebec.
By the early 17th century, Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition had shown that the Pacific Ocean lay between North America and Asia. English explorer Henry Hudson, hired by the Dutch East India Company, began his search for the Northwest Passage in 1609. He found the Hudson River but also found that it isn’t a through-channel to Asia.
The following year he tried again and found Hudson Bay. There are indeed channels through an island chain between Hudson Bay and the Arctic Ocean, but the 17th century was the middle of the Little Ice Age. The water was frozen year-round. Hudson’s party became trapped in the ice over the winter of 1610-1611. In the spring, his crew mutinied, set him and loyalists adrift, and returned to England without him.
Renewed interest in the Northwest Passage
The search for the Northwest Passage began again in 1845, when Sir John Franklin of the English Royal Navy took two ships and 128 men. They never returned. Archeologists have since found wreckage of the ships and skeletons of some of the crew, who had tried to cross the ice on foot. It appears that they resorted to cannibalism until the last one died.
Robert McClure set out in 1850 to find Franklin’s expedition. He actually found the Northwest Passage but traveled much of the distance on sled. Finally, Norse explorer Roald Amundsen succeeded in sailing through the Northwest Passage.
Amundsen chose to use a fishing boat, which had a very shallow draft, instead of a naval ship. His crew sailed from Greenland, past Baffin Island, to King William Island. They stayed there for two years to learn survival skills from the natives. When they left there in August 1905, they eventually encountered an east-bound whaling ship. Amundsen knew then that he had succeeded.
The feat made him famous, but no commercial ship could use his route. Over the next several decades, other voyages using ice breaking ships managed to complete the passage, but the route had no practical benefit for more than a century after Amundsen’s success.
The Northwest Passage that Henry Hudson lost his life trying to find opened up ice-free for the first time in recorded history in August 2007. In the summer of 2018, liquid ocean lapped at parts of the Greenland coast for the first time in thousands of years.
The water has warmed so much so quickly that some scientists predict it will be possible to sail all the way to the North Pole by 2040.
Geopolitical concerns about the Arctic Ocean
The US, Canada, Greenland, Norway, and Russia all have Arctic Ocean coasts. No one much cared about the ocean when it was frozen all year round. Now that it’s navigable in the summers, a new cold war is developing.
Norway and Russia in particular have built up their military presence, although the US and Canada also sail there. China, which is nowhere near the Arctic Ocean has also expressed interest in exerting influence there.
The Northwest Passage opens up possible shipping lanes. So all those nations want to control them in order to boost their economies, power, and prestige.
Environmental concerns about the Arctic Ocean
The Little Ice Age is long over. Various sources put its end somewhere between about 1800 and 1900. Natural geologic fluctuations would inevitably cause the region to warm up again. The Industrial Revolution, fueled by coal, started to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that greatly accelerated natural processes.
Most of the world is alarmed by the specter of climate change, and the polar areas have been affected more quickly and drastically than the rest of the world.
The area’s ecosystem is so far little explored. Like everywhere else, it has a complicated food chain. And like other oceans, plankton form its foundation.
Only recently has it been possible even to discover what all lives in the Arctic Ocean. The sun doesn’t shine through the ice but diving photographers have taken light underwater with them.
They have found fish of all sizes, whales, seals, and walruses swimming in the ocean. Between the surface and the floor, water carves tunnels in the ice. The sea bottom has such familiar organisms as corals, sea anemones, and sponges.
Warming water can upset the life cycles of arctic wildlife. Polar bears, for example, rely on sea ice to hunt prey. The impact of a warming ocean on zooplankton and other microscopic life is so far less well understood.
Exploitation of natural resources
Many nations covet the area’s natural resources, including seafood and oil. With the rest of the world’s oceans severely overfished, will the world be able to exploit the Arctic Ocean without ruining it? Fortunately, ten nations have agreed to a moratorium on fishing there until science can provide an answer.
Oil and gas exploration certainly disturb plant and animal life both in the water and on the shore. The process of exploration and drilling interferes with the various animals who communicate by sound. The inevitable oil spills will be especially hard to clean up in that still-frigid climate.
Tourism in the region is increasing. All these activities bringing outsiders will inevitably disturb the lifestyle of the four million or so indigenous people who have lived there for millennia.
The warming Arctic Ocean and weather in the rest of the Northern Hemisphere
The loss of sea ice will inevitably affect weather patterns throughout the earth’s temperate zone. Dips in the polar vortex in the winter time already cause freezing weather as far south as Mexico. We usually think of climate change in terms of global warming, but it clearly has the potential to make winters more severe.
Most of us don’t think about the Arctic Ocean very often, but we should. What happens there affects life where we live.