I was planning on writing an informative summary about the Northwest and Northeast Passages (the latter is now known as the Northern Sea Route) like I did with my piece on the influence of the Arctic Oscillation. But you know what, the Internet is full of info on this, so I'll just link to the Wikipedia articles on the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route. The Northwest Passage is 7,000 kilometres shorter than the current shipping route through the Panama Canal and it doesn't have the restriction on ship size the Panama Canal has. For the Northern Sea Route it's the same: almost 4,000 nautical miles shorter than through the route through the crowded Suez Canal. So there's an enormous potential for saving money, energy and time for global trade. A very small negative feedback that will probably be cancelled out by Jevons paradox.
Here's a good image depicting the routes that I found here:
As you can see the Northwest Passage has several routes depending on how much the ice is clogging the straits and channels between the many islands on that side of the Arctic. But if I were the captain of a ship and someone would ask me how I would like to travel from East to West along the Canadian coast, I'd say: 'After crossing Baffin Bay I'd like to enter the Parry Channel. Before entering Melville Sound I'll wave to Wayne Davidson while he's working in his garden in Resolute Bay, and after the Melville Sound it's out through McClure Strait. A nice straight line, clean and simple, thank you very much.'
Here's a more detailed map of the Northwest Passage area (click for a slightly larger image):
Of course every serious captain would love to have an easy time and hardly have to steer, leaving more time to drink rum and sing jolly songs, but never in history has it been easy. A great many people actually died looking for a way through:
These things are about to change, or have been changing already to be more precise. In 2007 and 2008 the Northwest Passage became open to ships without the need of an icebreaker, and this year there's a good possibility the 'direct route' opens up. The ice in Parry Channel has already broken up and is being transported southwards to Baffin Bay where it will eventually melt. A large obstacle is the ice bridge in Melville Sound, but as Patrick Lockerby is showing in his latest update, it is entering a rapid melting phase.
Here's a crappy animation I made this morning of the last 30 days (days with clear or almost clear skies only) showing the entire direct route of the Northwest Passage. I've decided to post it anyway because it was a lot of work! You can click on the image for a slightly bigger version and I advise you to keep focused on specific parts of the picture, instead of trying to take it all in.
For a more detailed look, there's this clear and recent picture from MODIS and again, check out Patrick Lockerby's analysis. I promise there will be a better animation a few weeks from now, as I'm sure interest in the Passages is likely to grow exponentially the coming weeks. Like Wayne Davidson put it in a mail he sent me this morning:
The ice is over all in very poor state. The passages will be totally open very early this year.
UPDATE: To compensate for the crappy animation I've just made another one that compares the aforementioned clear MODIS picture with one from the same date - June 17th - last year (click for bigger resolution):
Spot the differences!