Break On Through to the Other Side — Climate Change and Navigating the Northwest Passage

The Northwest Passage refers to a sea route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It runs along the northern coast of North America and through a series of waterways in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. The Passage has long been a holy grail to sea-faring adventurers, and has been sought as a possible trade route by marine shippers. Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen first navigated the Passage in 1903 to 1906  (Amundsen was also the first to lead a group to the South Pole in 1911, during the Antarctic expedition).

Since Amundsen successfully navigated the Passage in 1906, only 24 pleasure crafts have followed suite. More people have been into space than have navigated the Passage. In 2009, two-time Emmy Award winning documentarian and professional sailor Sprague Theobald decided to traverse the Passage, with the intent of making a documentary film about the impact of climate change.

Theobald left his home in Newport, Rhode Island for a 8,500-mile journey in his 57-foot trawler, Bagan, through the Passage, around Alaska, and finally to Seattle — facing potential death, dangerous ice floes, polar bears, Arctic storms, and oh yeah, quite possibly the scariest of them all; family. Theobald’s son and stepchildren, estranged from an ugly divorce 15 years earlier, reunited for the trek. Old wounds were drudged up and tensions grew in the hostile, ice-ridden environment. The crew nearly died at one point; getting caught in packed ice that was being driven to a rocky shore. Ultimately though, as is chronicled in the film and book by the same name, The Other Side of the Ice — the trip is a story of redemption. The family is brought closer together and seems to reach a point of closure, by facing adversity and near-death together.

A major factor that pushed Theobald to traverse the passage and document his journey was the lack of media coverage on climate change. Climate change is melting Arctic sea ice at an alarming rate (the Arctic in general has been referred to as “global warming’s canary in the coal mine”). Average temperatures in the Arctic region are rising at a rate twice as fast as anywhere else in the world. With the contraction of the Arctic ice cap, Earth is absorbing more sunlight and is getting hotter. This warming has had a massive impact on Arctic ecosystems, most notably by shrinking the habitat available to polar bears. Another example is the spruce bark beetle, which because of warmer weather are now breeding at an accelerated rate, consuming millions of acres of Alaskan forest. Of course, nearly all ecosystems and the organisms that comprise them are being impacted in some way by climate change — humans are no exception. With sea level rise caused by the melting ice caps, the risk of catastrophes occurring like Typhoon Haiyan in the Phillipines is likely to increase. A report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “Explaining Extreme Events of 2012 from a Climate Change Perspective,” claims that “climate-change related increases in sea level have nearly doubled today’s annual probability of a Sandy level flood recurrence as compared to 1950.”

The Bagan in front of an iceberg at Disko Bay, North Greenland. HITW PRODUCTIONS
The Bagan in front of an iceberg at Disko Bay, North Greenland. HITW PRODUCTIONS

“I thought, ‘There is definitely something going on with climate change, there’s no doubt about that.’ But none of mainstream media sent anybody up through the Passage to document the evidence up there. And I thought that it was really important to get there and get a perspective on it,” Theobald said. One statement from locals that made an impression on Theobald while passing through Cambridge Bay, Canada, was that it was the first time they had encountered slush.

The fact that Arctic sea ice is shrinking by ten percent per decade, would make it seem like the Passage has become more navigable in recent years. However, it’s important to note that the Canadian Arctic has a distinct ice regime than that of the Arctic Ocean (multiyear ice flows from the Queen Elizabeth Islands, clogging up the Northwest Passage). While the pathway has opened up because of global warming, it is now riddled with perilous multiyear ice chunks. Multiyear ice occurs when ice that should melt the summer after it’s frozen doesn’t melt, becoming thicker the following winter. These bergs are capable of slicing through a ship like a knife through butter — so it’s an understatement to say that it was not smooth sailing for the Theobald crew.

Some people might ask, “What was this guy thinking, taking his children on such a dangerous trip?” However, his kids are adults who also know their way around a boat. They made their own choices to go on the journey. That fact didn’t stop Theobald from having some serious doubts and possibly feelings of guilt about the trip. “When we were caught in that ice trap for three days, and we were slowly being pushed toward the rockbound coast, that’s when the headline in my mind changed from, ‘Father Takes Kids on Incredible Voyage’ to ‘Father Leads Children to Their Deaths.’ And that was about three days of thinking that,” Theobald said.

While Theobald had a broad goal of documenting the affect of climate change on the Passage, the story of The Other Side of the Ice is really more of a personal one. When faced with something as bad as the ice trap, Theobald invokes a “higher power,” a term he picked up from A.A. This period at the brink of death seems like the darkest point in the crew’s journey; while also the point at which they were the closest together — collectively realizing the transcendent bond that is family.

The unspoken connection between documenting climate change, the perilous adventure of the Northwest Passage, and the personal stories that make up the voyage seems to me to be this: often times the truth is not pretty; it hurts, and it’s probably easier to gloss over it. But ultimately, it’s better to know the truth, even if it is a difficult one to swallow — for without the truth, we can never grow.