Routes

The earliest traverse of the Northwest Passage was completed in 1853 but used sledges over the sea ice of the central part of Parry Channel.  Subsequently the following 313 complete maritime transits of the Northwest Passage have been made to the end of the 2019 navigation season, before winter began and the passage froze. 

These transits proceed to or from the Atlantic Ocean (Labrador Sea) in or out of the eastern approaches to the Canadian Arctic archipelago (Lancaster Sound or Foxe Basin) then the western approaches (McClure Strait or Amundsen Gulf), across the Beaufort Sea and Chukchi Sea of the Arctic Ocean, through the Bering Strait, from or to the Bering Sea of the Pacific Ocean. 

The Arctic Circle is crossed near the beginning and the end of all transits except those to or from the central or northern coast of west Greenland.  The routes and directions are indicated. 

Details of submarine transits are not included because only two have been reported (1960 USS Sea Dragon, Capt. George Peabody Steele, westbound on route 1 and 1962 USS Skate, Capt. Joseph Lawrence Skoog, eastbound on route 1).

Seven routes have been used for transits of the Northwest Passage with some minor variations (for example through Pond Inlet and Navy Board Inlet) and two composite courses in summers when ice was minimal. 

These routes are shown on the map:

1:  Davis Strait, Lancaster Sound, Barrow Strait, Viscount Melville Sound, McClure Strait, Beaufort Sea, Chukchi Sea, Bering Strait.  The shortest and deepest, but difficult, way owing to the severe ice of McClure Strait.  The route is preferred by submarines because of its depth.

2:  Davis Strait, Lancaster Sound, Barrow Strait, Viscount Melville Sound, Prince of Wales Strait, Amundsen Gulf, Beaufort Sea, Chukchi Sea, Bering Strait.  An easier variant of route 1 which may avoid severe ice in McClure Strait.  It is suitable for deep draft vessels.

3:  Davis Strait, Lancaster Sound, Barrow Strait, Peel Sound, Franklin Strait, Victoria Strait, Coronation Gulf, Amundsen Gulf, Beaufort Sea, Chukchi Sea, Bering Strait.  The principal route; used by most larger vessels of draft less than 14 m.

4:  Davis Strait, Lancaster Sound, Barrow Strait, Peel Sound, Rae Strait, Simpson Strait, Coronation Gulf, Amundsen Gulf, Beaufort Sea, Chukchi Sea, Bering Strait.  A variant of route 3 for smaller vessels if ice from McClintock Channel has blocked Victoria Strait.  Simpson Strait is only 6·4 m deep, it has shoals and complex currents.

5:  Davis Strait, Lancaster Sound, Prince Regent Inlet, Bellot Strait, Franklin Strait, Victoria Strait, Coronation Gulf, Amundsen Gulf, Beaufort Sea, Chukchi Sea, Bering Strait.  This route is dependent on ice in Bellot Strait which has complex currents.  Mainly used by eastbound vessels.

6:  Davis Strait, Lancaster Sound, Prince Regent Inlet, Bellot Strait, Rae Strait, Simpson Strait, Coronation Gulf, Amundsen Gulf, Beaufort Sea, Chukchi Sea, Bering Strait.  A variant of route 5 for smaller vessels if ice from McClintock Channel has blocked Victoria Strait.  Simpson Strait is only 6·4 m deep, complex currents run in it and in Bellot Strait.

7:  Hudson Strait, Foxe Basin, Fury and Hecla Strait, Bellot Strait, Franklin Strait, Victoria Strait, Coronation Gulf, Amundsen Gulf, Beaufort Sea, Chukchi Sea, Bering Strait.  A difficult route owing to severe ice usually at the west of Fury and Hecla Strait and the currents of Bellot Strait.  Mainly used by eastbound vessels as an alternative is practicable.

CP: Composite Route used in summers when the ice was minimal

* Text above taken from a document issued by: R. K. Headland and colleagues, revised 17 March 2020, Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge. (rkh10@cam.ac.uk)

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