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Hello, Earth Science Week! So What's Up With the Northwest Passage?

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Detailed Description

We welcome you to our Earth Science Week extravaganza (a podcast every day from Monday to Friday!), and then we sit down with Tom Armstrong to talk about the intriguing past and uncertain future of the Northwest Passage.




Public Domain.


Earth Science Week Introduction

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David Hebert

Well hello there, and welcome to CoreCast Episode 9, October 15th, 2007. I'm Dave Hebert.

If you were paying attention to the ridiculous advertisements at the beginning of CoreCast episodes 6 and 8-and if you weren't, check them out at you know at least two things:

One: This is Earth Science Week. Yaaaay!

Two: In celebration of that fact, we are bringing you a CoreCast every day this week, Monday through Friday.

Earth Science Week, in case you don't know, is an annual, international event organized by the American Geological Institute that helps the public understand and appreciate earth science and encourages stewardship of the Earth. A pretty darn good cause, if you ask me, and the USGS is a big-time contributor and supporter.

Now, the theme for Earth Science Week 2007 is "The Pulse of Earth Science," which promotes awareness of the state of earth science in education and society. Get it? Pulse? We're talking the heartbeat of earth science here, people.

And seeing as how we are the USGS, we have five, count ‘em, FIVE CoreCasts lined up this week that are packed with earth science. Now, if you're wondering why you should listen to five of these things in a week, then wonder this:

How is the ice changing in Antarctica?

What are the oldest and youngest parts of the United States?

How is it that the Earth is a self-sustaining dynamo?

You know the answers? You will if you tune in this week. And that's just a taste of what we've cooked up.

Now, I don't want to blow things out of proportion, but if you combined Christmas, your birthday, and a network television appearance by Bigfoot into one event, you'd have a pretty good idea of what you're about to experience on CoreCast.


OK, that was the definition of blowing things out of proportion. In any case, we are very excited about what we've got to offer you this week, and we hope you tune in every day, Monday through Friday.

Why don't you go ahead and take the weekend off.

Now, we've got a lot of stuff going on this week, so if you get lost in all of this, just head over to to get your bearings. And for more on Earth Science Week, visit

Now stay tuned, because up next, we kick off our Earth Science Week series with Tom Armstrong, USGS Senior Advisor for Global Change Programs, (also known around here as "Climate Guy") as he talks about the Northwest Passage. If you're interested in climate change, shipping routes, energy resources, or Marco Polo, you're going to want to stick around.

Thank you very much for joining us. Enjoy.

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Musical credit: "My Rough and Rowdy Ways" by Bill Cox

The Northwest Passage

Host: Scott Horvath

Scott Horvath

Welcome and thanks for listening to the USGS CoreCast—I'm Scott Horvath. This week, we're doing a podcast a day to help celebrate Earth Science Week and help to raise your awareness of earth science and how it plays an important role in understanding this dynamic planet of ours.

In this first podcast of the week, we'll learn a little bit more about an area of the Arctic called the Northwest Passage and what it is exactly, why this particular part of the Arctic is so talked about right now, and learn exactly what types of research the USGS is involved in within this part of the world.

Today, I'm joined by Tom Armstrong, who is the Senior Advisor to the USGS Director on Climate Change. We like to call him "Climate Guy." Can I call you that?

Tom Armstrong

You can call me "Climate Guy."


[laughing] OK, great. Tom, thanks for joining me.


Thanks for having me again, Scott.


So, for those who may not know what the Northwest Passage is, can you give us a little bit of history about that area of the world? For example, people in the past have tried crossing it for trade reasons, or the lure of the passage, etc.


Sure. The Northwest Passages is a sea route through the Arctic Ocean along the northern coast of North America, and it connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It's a direct route. The sea route winds through various islands of what's called the Canadian archipelago—a set of islands and peninsulas that are in part attached to, but in part separate from, the Canada mainland.

The islands make a series of waterways which collectively are known as the Northwest Passages or the Northwestern Passages. It has a very checkered and colorful history going back to the 1400s.

It was for a long time unsuccessfully sought as a possible trade route by many explorers starting with Cortés, Marco Polo, John Cabot, Cartier, Frobisher, Henry Hudson, and Vitus Bering, just to name a few of the many.

It was finally first successfully navigated by Roald Amundsen in a period of time from 1903-1906 . . . about a 4-year period where they were trying to move ships through the passage and finally made it through.

The Arctic pack ice is what really prevents the regular-rate shipping through that area and made it such a challenge to explore. But due to global warming, the sea ice is rapidly declining in that passageway—it's now opening up and its leading people to realize that there's a potential new sea route and trade route through this part of the globe.

Right now the Canadian government considers the Northwestern Passages part of the Canadian internal waters, but various other Arctic countries maintain that the passage should be an international strait or transit passage that allows unencumbered transit into and through the Arctic Ocean, mostly from Europe to Asia and the Pacific.


OK, that's sort of why . . . kind of leads into my next question here, but why the Northwest Passage is such an interesting topic for scientists, and businesses, and economists around world, and why this location has been carefully studied . . . so can you sort of elaborate more on that part of it?


Yeah. Since the passage lies directly between the Northern Hemisphere's major continents, it's absolutely a critically emerging geopolitical feature. And if you think about it . . . look down on a globe from the North Pole down on the land surface, and you can see that the continents are pretty much in close proximity to one another and the center point is the Arctic Ocean.

Since the center point is now becoming ice free, it becomes a very easy transit route amongst local ports on both sides of Asia, Europe, and the United States or North America, as well as Canada.

As the ice continues to melt and the passage continues to open up, it's obvious that it will become a major shipping route for local and interpolar transit. Especially, it will be valuable to European shipping to the Pacific, because right now the easiest route is through the Panama Canal, which has long . . . almost twice as long as what would take to go through the Arctic Ocean to get to the Pacific, and it's a lot more expensive.

In addition, one of the things that's really emerging is that there are significant potential oil and gas resources on the extended continental shelf of the Arctic Ocean both on the Russian side, European side, as well as the North American side. As the ice continues to melt a lot of these oil and gas resources will become even more accessible and probably become both technologically and economically recoverable.

So the emergence of the Arctic Ocean to exploration and economic exploitation is really leading to a new age of discovery, and countries are trying to put their stamp on a lot of this territory now.


Right. So what is the role of the USGS within this area? Do we do research on biology or geology within the Northwest Passage and, if so, how is our research then used by other organizations?


We do do research in the areas of the Northwestern Passages. Specifically one of our scientific cornerstones in the Arctic is Arctic mammal research, like the report we've been doing on the polar bears, which I know you're very familiar with [Scott: Yes]. This research is focused on potential habitat and population declines related to continued sea-ice loss due to global warming.

Another area of significant research in the Arctic is our Arctic oil and gas assessment, which is currently being conducted through the Energy Resources Program. This research will show how changes in the Arctic environment will affect what fossil fuels are both technologically and economically recoverable for the next 50 years or even more.

And another part of our cornerstone research is the Coastal Marine Program, which is beginning to gear up for a new expedition in seafloor mapping all the north slope of Alaska into the Arctic basin, or the polar basin.

This work is being conducted by the Coastal Marine Program in order to understand the seafloor, its characteristics, and potential impacts of changing Arctic conditions on Arctic law-of-the-sea issues, which is a very politically charged issue right now [Scott: Sure, definitely]. Ocean hazards such as submarine landslides and the migration and loss of gas methane hydrates and coastal erosion.

Also it's important . . . understanding the seafloor and its characteristics is very important . . . understanding the oil and gas geologic framework for the oil and gas assessment. So, a lot of very important work that we're doing.

I want also point out that equally as important as a science is the science information that we're conveying to decision makers and policy makers. I serve as the United States Head of Delegation for Science to the Arctic Council, a group which is comprised of all countries with coastal and territorial issues in the circumpolar area.

And I'm pleased to tell you that the science that we conduct on these issues and many others is being used at the highest levels of government in order to develop sound policies regarding the future of the Northwest Passages, the Arctic region, and its valuable resources, including trusted species. Arctic policy is really complicated, Scott, but the science is truly making a positive difference in getting all of us to a healthy future state in the Arctic.


Great—seems like a lot of compelling and intriguing information and certainly that area of the world holds an interesting future for everybody [Tom: I'm sure it does.].

So Tom, I want to thank you today for your time today and for sitting down and sharing with us that information.


You're welcome Scott. Anytime.


Well, that does it for this first podcast of the week. Be sure to check back tomorrow, and every day through Friday actually, as we'll be discussing other topics related to Earth Science Week. Join us tomorrow where Steve Sobieszczyk, "Sobie", will be talking about Antarctica and the new LANDSAT Image Mosaic of Antarctica, which is the first cloud-free image of Antarctica—the most detailed true color representation of this vast area ever produced. So that should be a great listen.

Also, if you'd like to learn more about Earth Science Week, you can visit Thanks again for listening.

The CoreCast is a product of the U.S. Geological Survey, Department of the Interior. Until next time, I'm Scott Horvath saying, "Keep it cool."

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Musical credit:

"A Mastermind's Plan of Evil," Edgen

Mentioned in this segment:

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