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Old 04-19-2019, 06:38 PM
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Northwest Passage question


I was reading about the lost Franklin expedition. Apparently the search for the NW passage was driven by a desire to find a trade route with Asia.

But, as I read it, Franklin’s ship were loaded with provisions for 3 or 4 years - for 129 men! - because they anticipated wintering over for those years on their journey. So 3 years over and 3 years back for a total of 6 years for an out and back trip. Given the time and cost, would it really been cost effective to trade with Asia under those restrictions? I’m wondering if English pride was the motivating factor instead.

Help fight my ignorance.
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Old 04-19-2019, 07:18 PM
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I'm very interested in the Franklin expedition and years ago read a fascinating book (Frozen in Time) about what happened to them and why, but that dealt more with their journey and ultimate fate rather than the hoped-for goal of finding a Northwest Passage. What I can tell you, though, is that the multiple years had little to do with the length of the journey and mostly to do with the difficult hit-and-miss process of discovering the hoped-for route. They departed in May, 1845 and arrived in Baffin Bay only a few months later (or sooner); the last Europeans to have reported seeing them did so in August of that same year. This was a time when sailing ships were beginning to transition to steam and Franklin's ships had both means of propulsion, so transit time through the NW passage to Asia would not have been all that onerous had an actual feasible route existed. And planners probably foresaw a future when steam engines alone would make it faster still.

Last edited by wolfpup; 04-19-2019 at 07:20 PM.
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Old 04-19-2019, 08:28 PM
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What I can tell you, though, is that the multiple years had little to do with the length of the journey and mostly to do with the difficult hit-and-miss process of discovering the hoped-for route.
Yep, this. They knew it would take a long time to find the route just because they would have to do a lot of trial and error and backtracking. Then they would have to figure out when the northern ice would be cooperative and would open up various passageways. Once they knew the route and knew when the ice would open up, trade ships could then schedule their routes to go through quickly.

Keep in mind that the Panama Canal hadn't been built yet. The alternative was to sail all the way around the bottom of South America. If they could find a working route through the northern ice, they could have cut thousands of miles off of their journey.

Unfortunately for them, the ice isn't that cooperative.

However, with climate change being what it is, the Northwest Passage is becoming viable for shipping, to some degree. While ice often blocks the routes completely, many passages are staying open for at least part of the year. Unfortunately for the shipping industry, those passages still have a lot of dangerous floating ice, so it's still not all that good of a route. While the melting arctic ice might be bad for other parts of the world, if the current trend continues, decent ice-free shipping lanes could soon become common through the arctic, and modern shipping could finally get their long awaited shortcut to Asia.
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Old 04-19-2019, 09:19 PM
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Just a quick note to say that my mention of Frozen in Time refers to the book by Owen Beattie and John Geiger, not to be confused by the apparently more popular one by Mitchell Zuckoff about World War II.

The one about the Franklin expedition appears to be out of print in hardcopy and available in the Kindle version only from Amazon Canada.

I found it fascinating for the reconstruction of the terrible ordeal that the sailors went through after becoming stuck in the ice in the far Arctic. There were many deaths even before they finally had to abandon ship and try trudging across the ice in the quest for any form of civilization. None of them survived. Eventually some scattered remains were found, with some of the bones suggesting that in the final days they had resorted to cannibalism -- a fact that Charles Dickens (among other notables) vehemently rejected as impossible for upstanding Christian British men.

One of the things that made it so eerie was the discovery in recent years of several graves where bodies of several of the sailors had been preserved in the permafrost and eventually exhumed and autopsied. This discovery was largely the basis of the book and its title. In addition to the horrors of the bitter cold and starvation, the autopsies showed that many of them suffered from extreme lead poisoning. This turned out to be due to defective lead sealing on the cans used for their large stores of canned food. The fact that lead poisoning leads to painful symptoms, mood disorders, paranoia, and eventually hallucinations -- and seeing pictures of the preserved bodies from the mid-19th century that had endured all this -- lends the whole story a horrifying other-worldly quality.

Since the publication of the book and its revised edition, both of the Franklin ships -- the Erebus and the Terror -- have been found in the waters of the high Arctic.

Last edited by wolfpup; 04-19-2019 at 09:22 PM.
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Old 04-19-2019, 09:29 PM
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Obligatory link: Stan Rogers singing Northwest Passage
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Old 04-19-2019, 09:38 PM
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Thread from when they found it five years ago:

https://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb...lin+expedition
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Old 04-19-2019, 10:11 PM
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Thanks for the info and the links. Never heard the Stan song, cool!
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Old 04-19-2019, 10:25 PM
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Hard to believe Stan would be 70!
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Old 04-20-2019, 03:29 AM
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Just a quick note to say that my mention of Frozen in Time refers to the book by Owen Beattie and John Geiger, not to be confused by the apparently more popular one by Mitchell Zuckoff about World War II.

The one about the Franklin expedition appears to be out of print in hardcopy and available in the Kindle version only from Amazon Canada.

[...]
Also appears to be available on Google Books (in Australia at least - only $12)

NB
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Old 04-20-2019, 03:44 AM
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And a slightly fictionalised novel (I assume) The Terror by Dan Simmons, also now adapted for TV.
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Old 04-20-2019, 05:02 AM
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One of the many, many interesting aspects of this event is that one of the several expeditions sent in search of the Franklin expedition actually made the first successful crossing of the NW Passage. The McClure expedition came in from the west, but their ship the Investigator got iced in, just like the Franklin expedition. Sensibly McClure sent sledging parties out in several directions, and left messages with a clear indication of his position and status at each. One of the expeditions coming from the east found the cairn he left on Melville Island and came and rescued them by sledge. Thus the crew of the Investigator managed to join the Resolute in the east, becoming the first Westerners to cross the passage in either direction.

Sadly, one of the Investigator's crew died on the way home, and was buried next to three of the first men to die from the Franklin expedition, on Beechey Island. After this 'successful' passage the powers that be seem to have abandoned the idea of this route for fifty years.

One of the many, many mysteries of the Franklin expedition is why he didn't leave more message cairns; in fact only one has been found, with two very terse notes (one written in the margins of the other). Did they run out of paper?
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Old 04-20-2019, 05:34 AM
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I'm very interested in the Franklin expedition and years ago read a fascinating book (Frozen in Time) about what happened to them and why, but that dealt more with their journey and ultimate fate rather than the hoped-for goal of finding a Northwest Passage.
I read Dan Simmons' The Terror a few months ago, and liked it. It's romanticised and includes supernatural elements, but it's also a very good (imo) third-person-subjective depiction of life aboard such ships for a 21st-century audience, and it does try to match the few known facts about the expedition's fate (though it was written before the wrecks were located). The book's recently been made into a TV series on AMC, which I haven't seen.

Last edited by Heracles; 04-20-2019 at 05:37 AM.
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Old 04-20-2019, 05:48 AM
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Forgot to add: The Terror doesn't try to answer the OP's question. The why is mostly seen in terms of one-upsmanship among the Navy's high-ranking captains, and the general theme of the Empire using exploration to expand its territory, prosperity and prestige.

Last edited by Heracles; 04-20-2019 at 05:50 AM.
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Old 04-20-2019, 11:33 AM
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Forgot to add: The Terror doesn't try to answer the OP's question. The why is mostly seen in terms of one-upsmanship among the Navy's high-ranking captains, and the general theme of the Empire using exploration to expand its territory, prosperity and prestige.
I would argue, in that case, that the novel actually does answer the OP's question, and that by the mid-Nineteenth Century there was little to no hope of a commercially viable Northwest Passage. Captain Cook had covered the entire west coast of North America in the late 1700's, proving that no passage emptied directly into the Pacific. The "passage" could only connect one part of the Arctic to another part of the Arctic, at extremely high latitudes. Any passage could only be open a few weeks out of the year, and then only under very variable and dangerous conditions. Granted, the trip around Cape Horn was no bargain, but by the 1840's, the "Northwest Passage" was already pretty much guaranteed to be worse.
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Old 04-20-2019, 11:45 AM
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Just wanted to say thanks for the note about Dan Simmons' The Terror, which I didn't know about. I've read one or two of his books in the past and he seems to be a decent enough horror writer. So I just got it for the Kindle and I'm sure I'll enjoy it, given my fascination with the topic.

Incidentally, in the preface material, he indicates that the last known sighting of the Franklin expedition was in Baffin Bay, as I had mentioned, but his sources give the date as late July 1845 rather than August, the sighting apparently made by whalers. For those not familiar, Baffin Bay is the part of the North Atlantic that separates Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic from the west coast of Greenland.
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Old 04-20-2019, 11:46 AM
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However, with climate change being what it is, the Northwest Passage is becoming viable for shipping, to some degree. While ice often blocks the routes completely, many passages are staying open for at least part of the year. Unfortunately for the shipping industry, those passages still have a lot of dangerous floating ice, so it's still not all that good of a route. While the melting arctic ice might be bad for other parts of the world, if the current trend continues, decent ice-free shipping lanes could soon become common through the arctic, and modern shipping could finally get their long awaited shortcut to Asia.
They were talking to a scientist involved with the artifacts retrieval from the HMS Erebus not too long ago and he stated the ice conditions in that area were the worst in 2 decades last summer/fall reducing their opportunity to work at the site to just a few days instead of the weeks they were expecting. The site were HMS Terror is located was even worse being completely inaccessible.
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Old 04-20-2019, 12:06 PM
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One of the many, many mysteries of the Franklin expedition is why he didn't leave more message cairns; in fact only one has been found, with two very terse notes (one written in the margins of the other). Did they run out of paper?
An online article I read suggested that some of the artifacts, including logbooks and other papers, were scavenged by the Inuit and lost.
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Old 04-20-2019, 12:20 PM
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They were talking to a scientist involved with the artifacts retrieval from the HMS Erebus not too long ago and he stated the ice conditions in that area were the worst in 2 decades last summer/fall reducing their opportunity to work at the site to just a few days instead of the weeks they were expecting. The site were HMS Terror is located was even worse being completely inaccessible.
That has nothing to do with ECG's comment, which is correct. I also find it extremely implausible, given the rapid average annual decline in Arctic sea ice. Indeed, China has already revealed plans to send shipping through the Northwest Passage, and such initiatives have raised concerns about asserting Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic.

ETA: During the search for the Erebus and Terror, there were some issues in 2009 related to a shortage of ships and Coast Guard support and unusual sea ice, but that was an anomalous peak that only matched the ice level of five years previous, and the clear trend is very rapid average ice decline.

Last edited by wolfpup; 04-20-2019 at 12:23 PM.
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Old 04-20-2019, 12:41 PM
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That has nothing to do with ECG's comment, which is correct. I also find it extremely implausible, given the rapid average annual decline in Arctic sea ice. Indeed, China has already revealed plans to send shipping through the Northwest Passage, and such initiatives have raised concerns about asserting Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic.

ETA: During the search for the Erebus and Terror, there were some issues in 2009 related to a shortage of ships and Coast Guard support and unusual sea ice, but that was an anomalous peak that only matched the ice level of five years previous, and the clear trend is very rapid average ice decline.
Well here's a link to an article from a March 2019 that says otherwise:

https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/fra...aven-1.5072435
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Old 04-20-2019, 01:23 PM
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Well here's a link to an article from a March 2019 that says otherwise:

https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/fra...aven-1.5072435
ECG's comment was about the increasing viability of the NW Passage as a shipping route due to average annual declines in Arctic sea ice. Your response to that appeared to indicate that you disagree, but as I just showed you, that is exactly what's happening. Whatever ice issues they're talking about in that article related to accessing the Franklin wrecks, assuming it's factually correct, were obviously extremely localized and not representative of the region overall, and therefore not representative either of the general region nor of the general trend in the opening up of the NW Passage. As a matter of fact, in August and September of 2018, when the article claims they were encountering ice conditions that were "the worst seen in 20 years", Arctic sea ice extent was the 6th lowest in the 40-year satellite record.
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Old 04-20-2019, 01:54 PM
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Just an additional comment of interest, FTR. During the winter of 2018, Arctic sea ice extent varied at different times between the lowest and second lowest on record. This was followed by an unusually cool summer and lower than normal rates of summer ice melt, wrapping up the season with 6th lowest ice extent on record instead of what was on track to be the lowest amount of summer ice ever. The lower than normal rate of ice melt during that summer could well have produced unusual regional ice patterns, and this may account for the discrepancy between the ice problems that the Franklin investigators faced and the general trend of Arctic sea ice decline.
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Old 04-20-2019, 02:02 PM
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Hard to believe Stan would be 70!
The late, much regretted Stan Rogers. Did you ever hear, "The Wreck of the Athens Queen": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AjuBMs1ftOE? I still break up every time I hear, "Fresh cream in my tea".
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Old 04-20-2019, 02:26 PM
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The book's recently been made into a TV series on AMC, which I haven't seen.
I haven't read the book, but I'm about 2/3 through the show on disc right now. It is quite excellent.
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Old 04-20-2019, 03:00 PM
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On the ice issue, i read one article (can't find it now) that said that the area where Erebus was found was notorious for having bad ice coverage, because of the local currents. Speculation was that if they had taken a different route and stayed farther north of King William Island they might not have become ice-bound.
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Old 04-20-2019, 04:14 PM
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Further on the ice issue, there is evidence that Franklin picked a particularly bad time, climatically speaking, to try to navigate the Northwest Passage. Ice core samples taken for a 1985 study appear to indicate that, with global warming still in the distant future, natural variations were producing a cooling phase in the Arctic at just that time, so the cold and ice were exceptionally vicious in those years.
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Old 04-21-2019, 12:26 AM
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The late, much regretted Stan Rogers. Did you ever hear, "The Wreck of the Athens Queen": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AjuBMs1ftOE? I still break up every time I hear, "Fresh cream in my tea".


For me it's always been the "near two hundred chickens and the leather couch of green"!
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Old 04-21-2019, 01:27 AM
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Maybe it's just me, but does setting sail for the Arctic on two ships called Erebus and Terror not seem like tempting fate?
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Old 04-21-2019, 03:05 PM
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The Erebus and Terror were both already successful exploration ships, in both the Arctic and the Antarctic. Mount Erebus in Antarctica is named after the ship.
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Old 04-21-2019, 04:30 PM
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The Erebus and Terror were both already successful exploration ships, in both the Arctic and the Antarctic. Mount Erebus in Antarctica is named after the ship.
Ditto for Mount Terror.
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Old 04-21-2019, 05:54 PM
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I read Dan Simmons' The Terror a few months ago, and liked it. It's romanticised and includes supernatural elements, but it's also a very good (imo) third-person-subjective depiction of life aboard such ships for a 21st-century audience, and it does try to match the few known facts about the expedition's fate (though it was written before the wrecks were located). The book's recently been made into a TV series on AMC, which I haven't seen.
Why did they do it? It's the old because it's there. Or in this case, might be.

I've also read The Terror. It is speculated, and not hard to believe that the rations of food where a big problem.

Canning, in tins, where sealed with lead back when it first started. And, did not always seal well. So, we are talking a choice between lead poisoning and/or botulism, or starving to death. Must have been horrific.
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Old 04-21-2019, 06:18 PM
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Canning, in tins, where sealed with lead back when it first started. And, did not always seal well. So, we are talking a choice between lead poisoning and/or botulism, or starving to death. Must have been horrific.
As I noted in post #4, autopsies did reveal evidence of severe lead poisoning in some of the sailors. It must indeed have been horrific, considering the evidence we have now of the extreme cold in the Arctic at that particular time, being endured by men suffering the pains and potential mental disorders of lead poisoning, including paranoia and hallucinations.

One thing I love about the Dope is how discussions like this sometimes clue me in to books or films I didn't know about. I had not heard of The Terror before, either as a book or the subsequent TV series. Looking forward to reading it. Given the surreal and morbidly fascinating circumstances, if I had written a story like that I would have left it ambiguous whether the supernatural creatures threatening the men were real or hallucinations induced by lead poisoning.
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Old 04-22-2019, 09:54 AM
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ECG's comment was about the increasing viability of the NW Passage as a shipping route due to average annual declines in Arctic sea ice. Your response to that appeared to indicate that you disagree, but as I just showed you, that is exactly what's happening. Whatever ice issues they're talking about in that article related to accessing the Franklin wrecks, assuming it's factually correct, were obviously extremely localized and not representative of the region overall, and therefore not representative either of the general region nor of the general trend in the opening up of the NW Passage. As a matter of fact, in August and September of 2018, when the article claims they were encountering ice conditions that were "the worst seen in 20 years", Arctic sea ice extent was the 6th lowest in the 40-year satellite record.
My first response was simply corroborating what engineer_comp_geek posted when he said "While ice often blocks the routes completely," and that it was affecting the search for Franklin Expedition artifacts. My second post was simply a link as proof it was not some figment of my imagination when you stated my subject in my first post was implausible. As for your "assuming it's factually correct" comment about the link I provided, I had a look at NWP transits the last few years and there were quite a number of ships that have done it each year but in 2018, there were only 2 from Germany that are shown as 36.6 m and 16.6 m Ketch's. Pretty substantial drop compared to 2017 which saw 32 vessels transit the NWP.
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Old 04-22-2019, 11:29 AM
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My first response was simply corroborating what engineer_comp_geek posted when he said "While ice often blocks the routes completely," and that it was affecting the search for Franklin Expedition artifacts. My second post was simply a link as proof it was not some figment of my imagination when you stated my subject in my first post was implausible. As for your "assuming it's factually correct" comment about the link I provided, I had a look at NWP transits the last few years and there were quite a number of ships that have done it each year but in 2018, there were only 2 from Germany that are shown as 36.6 m and 16.6 m Ketch's. Pretty substantial drop compared to 2017 which saw 32 vessels transit the NWP.
Not sure why you're still going on about this or what you're trying to prove. The year-over-year average of Arctic sea ice extent is in rapid decline, period. That's a fact. That's also one of the major reasons that the Arctic is warming about four times faster than the global average. We occasionally get climate change deniers on this board who try to "prove" kooky things like that Arctic ice cover is not in decline, and your comments seemed to be hinting at that. If not, my apologies, but then I don't know what your point was, especially the latest one about fewer ships transiting the NW Passage in 2018. That isn't a scientific measure of sea ice extent. Satellite observations are.

Again, the facts as previously cited are that the winter of 2018 saw, at different times, the lowest and the second-lowest Arctic sea ice extent on record. But due to a cool summer, it ended the season with the sixth-lowest ice extent in the satellite record instead of what was surely on track to be the lowest ever. The record low winter ice followed by unusually low summer ice melt may have produced anomalous ice patterns in August and September of 2018 when further explorations of the Franklin wrecks was being attempted.

There is often still enough ice blocking the NW Passage in most summers that the transit remains a challenge. But the long-term trend line continues to show rapid year-over-year ice loss on average, and the Arctic continues to warm at an accelerated pace. Trying to argue otherwise is just silly.
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Old 04-22-2019, 11:55 AM
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I would argue, in that case, that the novel actually does answer the OP's question, and that by the mid-Nineteenth Century there was little to no hope of a commercially viable Northwest Passage. Captain Cook had covered the entire west coast of North America in the late 1700's, proving that no passage emptied directly into the Pacific. The "passage" could only connect one part of the Arctic to another part of the Arctic, at extremely high latitudes. Any passage could only be open a few weeks out of the year, and then only under very variable and dangerous conditions. Granted, the trip around Cape Horn was no bargain, but by the 1840's, the "Northwest Passage" was already pretty much guaranteed to be worse.
Yeah they mostly knew this. But there had been a hypothesis of a ice free arctic, and of course exploring and Furthest North just for the sake of doing it.

If they had found a NW passage, even if it was barely navigable and had no practical use, it still would have been a "discovery".
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Old 04-22-2019, 12:21 PM
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Not sure why you're still going on about this or what you're trying to prove. The year-over-year average of Arctic sea ice extent is in rapid decline, period. That's a fact. That's also one of the major reasons that the Arctic is warming about four times faster than the global average. We occasionally get climate change deniers on this board who try to "prove" kooky things like that Arctic ice cover is not in decline, and your comments seemed to be hinting at that. If not, my apologies, but then I don't know what your point was, especially the latest one about fewer ships transiting the NW Passage in 2018. That isn't a scientific measure of sea ice extent. Satellite observations are.

Again, the facts as previously cited are that the winter of 2018 saw, at different times, the lowest and the second-lowest Arctic sea ice extent on record. But due to a cool summer, it ended the season with the sixth-lowest ice extent in the satellite record instead of what was surely on track to be the lowest ever. The record low winter ice followed by unusually low summer ice melt may have produced anomalous ice patterns in August and September of 2018 when further explorations of the Franklin wrecks was being attempted.

There is often still enough ice blocking the NW Passage in most summers that the transit remains a challenge. But the long-term trend line continues to show rapid year-over-year ice loss on average, and the Arctic continues to warm at an accelerated pace. Trying to argue otherwise is just silly.
I just found it a bit ridiculous that you are calling into question the factual statements made by a link I provided that stated the ice conditions in the areas of the two wrecks is limiting/preventing artifact retrieval when the info is being provided by the Canadian government, who is constantly beating us over the head about the need for the carbon tax. That area in question is also limiting NWP transits which again corroborates what engineer_comp_geek said with his "While ice often blocks the routes completely,". At no time did I ever hint that the ice conditions in those areas is somehow proof that the Arctic ice isn't melting faster then it can be made up during the winter.
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Old 04-22-2019, 12:42 PM
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... the Canadian government, who is constantly beating us over the head about the need for the carbon tax.
The real and hitherto elusive point finally becomes clear.
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Old 04-22-2019, 12:53 PM
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Originally Posted by wolfpup View Post
The real and hitherto elusive point finally becomes clear.
Yeah, I have a problem paying more taxes to a government run by some clown who stated that the "budget would balance itself". So what? How does that have anything to do with the fact that at no time did I ever hint that the ice conditions in those areas is somehow proof that the Arctic ice isn't melting faster then it can be made up during the winter. My initial post was about the ice conditions in the areas of the two wrecks limiting/preventing artifact retrieval but somehow you interpreted that as me being a climate change denier.
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Old 04-22-2019, 01:49 PM
gregorio is offline
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Yeah, I liked Erebus by Michael Palin. Yes, that Michael Palin. Very readable and goes into detail about the various crews and individuals around during that ship's voyages.

https://www.amazon.ca/Erebus-Voyages...gateway&sr=8-1
  #39  
Old 04-22-2019, 02:13 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by mako88sb View Post
Yeah, I have a problem paying more taxes to a government run by some clown who stated that the "budget would balance itself". So what? How does that have anything to do with the fact that at no time did I ever hint that the ice conditions in those areas is somehow proof that the Arctic ice isn't melting faster then it can be made up during the winter. My initial post was about the ice conditions in the areas of the two wrecks limiting/preventing artifact retrieval but somehow you interpreted that as me being a climate change denier.
I'm just trying to keep the discussion factual, mate, since this is GQ. The matter of ice around the Franklin wrecks was resolved early in this discussion. I initially said I found it implausible that the ice levels were "the highest in 20 years". You provided a cite to that claim, so I was happy to concede that they may have been, but just in a very localized area, since ice levels are clearly dropping on long-term averages. I even offered a possible explanation for it, hypothesizing why ice patterns may have been unusual in the late summer of 2018, despite being at near-record lows all year in the Arctic overall.

And that should have been the end of it. Instead you've been going on and on and on about ice in the NW Passage and how few ships sailed through in 2018 etc. etc. And now we know why. But this is not a political forum, nor is it a debate forum.
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