Ship Lost in the Arctic 160 Years Ago Found Thanks to Climate Change

By Sarah Zhang on at

In 1845, the explorer John Franklin set off to sail the fabled Northwest Passage, an Arctic sea route that would hypothetically connect the Atlantic and the Pacific. He never returned. His ship was lost to the ice. But now, thanks to the obsession of Canada's prime minister, an expedition has located one of Franklin's two ships. Why does Canada care so much about this old vessel? Climate change.

It's not that Prime Minister Stephen Harper—a conservative often criticised for being anti-science—cares about climate change, per se. But climate change does have the potential to transform the icy and dangerous Northwest Passage into a valuable shipping route, and Franklin's long-lost ships could be key to asserting Canadian sovereignty over the disputed region.

Ships never made it through the Northwest Passage for hundreds of years because, well, it did not exist. It was ice. Not so anymore thanks to climate change. In 2008, the first commercial vessel sailed through the Northwest Passage, and now there's even talk of luxury cruises.

Also in 2008, Parks Canada began a multi-year expedition to locate Franklin's lost ships. "Using sophisticated side-scan sonar and underwater remote-operated vehicles," Kat Long wrote in Slate, "archaeologists have searched the seabed for evidence of the ships and ruled out square kilometers that yielded nothing. Teams on land, together with Inuit guides, have combed the pebbly shores for clues to Franklin's final resting place." They found tantalising hints of food tins, a toothbrush, and bones.

This week, Harper himself announced the discovery of one of Franklin's ships. He's taken a remarkably hands-on approach to the whole search, even spending two nights on one of the expedition's ships.

The whole episode can be seen as an example of global warming's transformative power. This isn't just about slight adjustments in the weather. This is about entire shipping routes being created, an economy changed, and international relations reshaped. The long tentacles of climate change even reach back into history, shining a light on a lost 19th century ship deemed relevant to our warmer world. [BBC, Slate]

Top image: An engraving of one of Franklin's ships, the HMS Terror, when it was marooned on ice during an earlier Arctic expedition. There is not yet enough information to know whether the ship that was found is HMS Terror, or Franklin's other ship, HMS Erebus. Creative Commons