Mapping new world, new climate

A cutter works its way through the Northwest Passage in Canadian waters. Climate change is opening sea routes through Arctic waters, providing both opportunities and warnings. PHOTO: U.S. Coast Guard, Flickr Creative Commons

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

We learn in history class about the search for the fabled Northwest Passage. This coveted sea route between the East Indies and Europe promised untold riches to explorers and traders of the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries.

They searched the Great Lakes, cut inland through Lake Vermilion, forging West. Always these aquatic prospectors crashed headlong into the prairies, mountains and other terrain inhospitable to tall masted ships. In the end, it was the Arctic ice that killed many of them.

For the Northwest Passage was real, lying north of modern day Canada. Tragically, its frozen channels served an unsuitable course for commercial shipping despite generations of hope to the contrary. The Norwegian Roald Amundsen became the first to navigate the Northwest Passage in 1903. For decades, few bothered to follow. Certainly this was no way to make money.

But something changed. Global temperatures rose quickly, far more quickly than natural patterns would explain. By the end of the Cold War, military submarines crept stealthily through the Northwest Passage. Exploring the route became less dangerous. And now it is completely open for part of the year. The only drawback is a short shallow stretch. This prevents extremely large ships from passing through with a full load.

The Northwest Passage is only the beginning of new economic reality in the Arctic. Just last week the Danish vessel Venta Maersk completed an experimental journey over the top of Russia. The ship loaded with 3,600 containers made it to St. Petersburg days ago. This could be an early adoption of a shorter, more economical route from the Pacific Ocean to Europe.

Officials with the Maersk Line don’t believe the Northern Sea route is ready for routine use yet. The Venta Maersk was escorted by an ice-breaker for the most treacherous part of the trip. This expends a vast amount of fuel. And this particular ship carries frozen fish and other refrigerated cargo unfazed by cold weather. But the fact that they’re trying it shows a certain sort of audacity.

One unheralded fact about human history is that changing climate plays a significant role in the rise and fall of societies. Food. Water. Temperature. Wars over food, water, and temperature. These factors cause humans to thrive or die in numbers.

People like to speculate on the Fall of the Roman Empire. Plenty of reasons exist, and plenty of outcomes resulted. One theory gaining serious attention, however, argues that the Romans succumbed to a combination of factors exacerbated by changing climate and resulting diseases.

Professor Kyle Harper of the University of Oklahoma wrote a 2017 book “The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the Fall of an Empire.” He pins the weakness of Roman defenses against attacks from germanic tribes on a population devastated by plague and negative changes in climate.

The Roman Empire rose over centuries marked by a temperate, wet climate highly conducive to farming. Surviving the winter was not only easy, but downright enjoyable.

The end of the Roman run was indeed marked by political struggles and the costs of empire. But when the so-called barbarians arrived at the gates of Rome they faced only nominal opposition. Most people there were already starving or dead.

The fall of the empire happened before the Romans realized it.

Here in Minnesota, we see climate change all around us. Ask a forester about the trees. Ask a naturalist about the migratory patterns of birds and insects. We are drying out, getting hotter. For now, the change has not devastated us, but could soon. Out West, the fires grow bigger, our air hazier.

Harper reminds us that we have many tools the ancient Romans didn’t have. Technological, scientific and medical breakthroughs could help us cope with these changes.

But we have to use these tools for them to work. We have to acknowledge the change, and accept our role in both causing and solving the problem.

Despite the lessons of the ages, we have not yet fully tallied the cost of clear navigation through the Arctic.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Sept. 30, 2018 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


  1. A ship load of iron ore went from northern Norway to China this way about 8 years ago. Nothing new..

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