DUMMERSTON, Vt. — The Northwest Passage, the fabled shortcut above the Arctic Circle between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans that had defied exploration for centuries, used to be ice covered and was not navigable by conventional ships.
Almost four decades ago, it was a big deal when a converted oil tanker blasted through the Arctic ice to prove that it could be done.
In 1968, when oil was first discovered at Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope of Alaska, no one was quite sure how to get it out — pipelines to the south or tankers sailing north through the Arctic Circle.
Esso and several other oil companies paid to have a 115,000-ton tanker, the Manhattan, rebuilt into an icebreaker with a reinforced hull and bow. On Aug. 24, 1969, the Manhattan set out from Delaware Bay bound for Alaska, via the Northwest Passage.
Escorted by the Canadian Navy's icebreaker John A. MacDonald, the Manhattan stormed its way through ice as thick as 50 feet to reach to Prudhoe Bay by Sept. 14. It made Point Barrow, the western terminus of the voyage, the following week. The Manhattan then retraced its steps through the Northwest Passage and arrived in New York on Nov. 12.
The voyage proved it was technically feasible to send an oil tanker through the Arctic, but not economically or environmentally sound. Instead, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was built to bring the oil to Valdez on Prince William Sound.
The Manhattan's voyage, coming on the heels of the Apollo 11 moonwalk, was an epic feat of exploration. It showed that it was possible for a commercial vessel to conquer the ice and extreme cold of the Arctic.
But four decades later, you don’t need an icebreaker to sail the Northwest Passage in August and September. A plain old boat will do just fine. That’s because, according to scientists from the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo., the summer ice cover in Arctic reached an all-time record low this year.
This wasn’t supposed to happen in 2007. Most climatologists predicted that the complete disappearance of Arctic sea ice cover during the summer would not happen until at least 2070. Now, it might happen within the next 20 years.
What does that mean? The loss of sea ice could completely alter the Arctic's ecology, threatening extinction for polar bears and other mammals.
Researchers say melting Arctic ice would not contribute to the rising sea levels threatening to submerge many of the world's coastal cities in the coming decades. However, the loss of the ice may contribute to global warming. That's because ice tends to reflect heat, while water tends to absorb it. Without a consistent ice pack in the Arctic, more heat may be trapped on the Earth's surface.
Signs that the earth's climate is changing grow clearer by the day. Yet the Bush administration still wants to pretend that nothing is wrong.
Last week, President Bush blew off a climate change summit that was held at the United Nations. His administration will not reverse its position against mandatory greenhouse gas emissions cuts — something that 175 other nations endorsed in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
The Bush administration still clings to the fiction that mandatory emissions cuts would harm the U.S. economy. Instead, the White House staged its own forum and called for voluntary cuts in greenhouse emissions and greater research into cleaner energy technologies.
Translated, this means more money for coal, oil and nuclear energy, while at the same time hoping industry will lower its greenhouse emissions without prodding from the government.
Irresponsible doesn't even begin to describe the administration's stance. The planet's temperature is rising. Sea levels are rising. The climate is changing and our global ecosystem is endangered. Yet President Bush appears determined to face the greatest crisis of the 21st century by doing nothing. Once again, he is determined to have the United States stand isolated and alone.