Saturday May 27, 2017

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Northwest Passages

Pre-factual cartography

The idea of a northwest passage has captured the imagination of explorers for five centuries. Fantasy was also an important asset for early cartographers looking to fill in the blank spots on Arctic maps
The hand-written maps on the wall

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As far as transit routes go, the Northwest Passages’ best days lie in the future. While the rapid decline of sea ice stands to make Russia’s north-eastern passage a significant global byway, current and wind patterns mean the Northwest Passages would be among the last areas of the Arctic to become fully navigable, should the effects of global warming go unchecked.

Nevertheless, the dream of a north-western waterway linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans remains as tantalising as ever (the transit of the Crystal Serenity being the latest, but not the only closely watched voyage through the archipelago in recent years).

Now, a new exhibit, opened last week at the University of Southern Maine, in connection with the Arctic Council meeting being held in Portland, traces the search for the fabled route through the development of cartographic depictions of the region.

SEE VIDEO: The Northwest Passage: Navigating old beliefs and new realities (at end of article)

The exhibit displays 60 maps created over the past five centuries. Most, according to Ian Fowler, the exhibit’s curator, contain some degree of distortion, either as the result of imaginative interpretation to compensate for lacking information or outright lying, where the information ran counter to the motivation behind commissioning the map in the first place.

That the degree of accuracy of early maps varies should come as little surprise, he explains. Firstly, few cartographers witnessed the region with their own eyes. Secondly, map-making was long a commercial enterprise; the fewer blank spots there were on a map, the more useful it was. For those early cartographers who did not go on voyages, many sought to fill in the blank spaces by speaking with returning sailors. Where this was impossible, conjecture sufficed.

It would be foolish to expect that early explorers and cartographers, even those working in the early 20th century, could produce maps with the same ease or accuracy as we can today. Nevertheless, to today’s viewer of historical maps, and even some of the more modern ones, many of the geographic features appear to be conspicuously distorted.

SCROLL DOWN to view a selection of maps shown in the exhibit

In many cases, Mr Fowler explains, this served the purpose not of the cartographer, but of the person paying to have the map made; maps were often used as evidence to support territorial claims, or to encourage patrons to sponsor further exploration.

We now know, of course, that there is neither a continent nor a sea of warm water at the North Pole. And, as much as ice makes them intermittent waterways, the Northwest Passages have been proven to exist. All of these details made it into early maps. Continuing exploration and improved technology has disproved some early assumptions. Others, though, proved to contain a grain of truth.

For example, we know no land bridge connects Greenland with Russia, as some early maps showed, but, thanks to Soviet exploration in the 1940s, we do know that the Lomonosov Ridge, an undersea range, links the two countries.

This last fact, as it turns out, may yet prove vital to both countries’ claims to the ocean floor in the Arctic. Supporting the claims will hinge not just on the data scientists collect, but just as much on how well cartographers portray them.

A selection of the maps on display is provided below. All of the maps being shown can be seen on the exhibit’s website.