Climate Change: 400 Years Too Late for Henry Hudson

Despite the onset of summer and the melting ice in and around Hudson’s Bay, Henry Hudson must have felt particularly cold that day of June, 1611.  Along with his son Jon, and six other crewmen, Hudson was bound by his former crew and left in a small shallop and set adrift in the bay that bears his name.

The mutiny that occurred on the Discovery in 1611 was enacted by starving, desperate, men who longed to return to their homes instead of venturing after what they considered a fool’s errand; searching for a Northwest Passage. Hudson, his son, and his small band, were never seen again.

Four-hundred years later, climate change has provided that which Hudson sought.

oil painting from 1881 by John Maler Collier depicts Henry Hudson, his son and a crew member after mutiny

As that thought sinks in, I’ll admit I’m being a bit too poetic with reality. Nevertheless I’m struck by how ironic climate change is being, right in the face of human history.

Since the early days of global trade, people in Europe were trying to figure out how to trade with people in Asia without the long sea trip around Africa. Surely, if the world was round, one could sail west from Europe and you’d eventually hit China? Unfortunately for enterprising merchants, there were a couple continents in the way.

It soon became apparent to explorers that North and South America were blocking trade with the East, and to add insult to injury, it do so by narrowing ever so tantalizingly small in the centre but never allowing ships to cross.

The goal was to find some pathway, either through the Americas or around them that would allow quick crossing and lucrative trade. Pretty much ever river that drained into the Atlantic was explored inside and out searching for this elusive path. Even the St. Lawrence was believed to be such a passage, the rapids near Montreal were name Lachine Rapids (La Chine is French for China) by the explorer Jacques Cartier.

In 1497, John Cabot, who was probably the first European since the Vikings to explore Atlantic Canada, attempted to discover a Northwest passage. In 1576, three attempts to explore the Canadian Arctic were launched, under the helm of Martin Frobisher, after whom Frobisher Bay is named after.

Hudson made several attempts to locate a Northwest Passage through the Arctic but never succeeded. In 1611, Hudson had been exploring what we know today as Hudson Bay, during the winter ice froze over and his ship was trapped in James Bay, where they remained icebound until the spring. When the ice melted, Hudson’s demoralized crew wanted to return home but their captain would have none of that. It proved a bad career decision for Hudson, his crew mutinied and left him and a small band of sailors adrift in Hudson’s Bay.

I mentioned the irony that climate change came too late to save Hudson’s life. That’s a bit of hyperbole, of course. In actuality a Northwest Passage was navigated in 1903 (although it took 3 years) by Roald Amundsen. Nevertheless, major trade through the passage never really occurred. It took consider skill and luck by Amundsen to survive the first time and it just wasn’t practical in the grand scheme of things.

As climate change causes increased arctic melting, we are literally gaining a Northwest Passage. However, this is bringing up a whole new slew of concerns both for scientists, environmentalists and even merchants.


Graph from Globe and Mail Article. Shows routes and ice melting.

With a new waterway opening up, today’s nations are just as determined to control as nations would have been in Hudson’s day. Canada is claiming any such passage as part of its territory, however; other nations are disputing this, and some even have claims on the area as well.

In a recent article in the Globe and Mail, scientists are noting that as multi-year ice, which contains less salt than normal ice, melts; it releases colder water.  This colder water sinks more readily and this forces the saltier warmer water (from more recent ice melting) up, which further causes arctic warming which melts more ice. This would explain why arctic ice is melting faster than expected.

The new Northwest Passage not only allows boats and merchants to travel through it, but also marine life. And that could be a problem according to another article in the Globe and Mail. The problem here is that animals that live in the arctic are naturally acclimatized to survive there. They have evolved to survive not just the weather but their fellow animals. If new animals from different parts of the world enter their environment and start competing for resources, arctic animals could be pushed to extinction.

Already a species of Plankton, extinct from non-arctic waters, was found in the St. Lawrence river in 2001 and is now as far south as the New York coast. A Gray Whale was spotted off the coast of Israel last year. Gray Whales have been extinct from the Atlantic since the 1700′s. Scientists theorized that this whale crossed the Northwest Passage into the Atlantic.

Sometimes it’s fun to play the “what if…” game in history. What if a Northwest Passage had been discovered by Hudson? Well, most likely his crew wouldn’t have mutinied on him. Of more relevance, global trade would have developed in a vastly different way. Because of such a lucrative trade route existed, there probably would have been far more competition to colonize northern Canada. Most likely the other colonial powers, besides just Britain and France would have been players in this effort. The Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, and possibly more. Contact with Asia would have occurred more often, which means potentially one might have seen a great cultural impact from China, Japan, Korea and other Asian nations on the Americas. Most likely, the Hudson’s Bay Company, the oldest corporation in North America, would have had even more influence than it did during its long history. Perhaps even rivaling the East India Company. And surely, whatever nation was able to control the Northwest Passage would have a huge advantage in trade and naval power in the world.

Another way a Northwest Passage would have changed things is that northern colonization for Canada would likely not have been possible. Current settlements in the Arctic are possible because of ice roads. These roads, built on ice, are Canada’s supply lines to settlements, towns and dwellings in the north. They are used to transport such essential items like diesel, gas and groceries. However, an article is suggesting that Canada may lose up to 400,000 square kilometres of land in the north due to climate change. The results of this are troubling. Canada and organizations that rely on ice roads may have to invest in new technologies to continue to use the arctic, but it’s hard to say when and where this new technology and infrastructure will have to be implanted because of the scientific uncertainties with regards to climate change.

Even if all this had been known by Henry Hudson, I doubt it would have been much consolation.

One Response to “Climate Change: 400 Years Too Late for Henry Hudson”

  1. wb says:

    Mr Clown
    I can’t believe you’re still trying to push this diatribe.
    All of your glassy eyed scientist looking for a government handout manipulated and distorted their data. What a surprise!
    It’s pretty clear that the globe is cooling now.
    Hope all up north burn lots of fissile fuel and wood trying
    to stay warm. :o


  • Ethan Clow

    Ethan Clow, born and raised in the Vancouver area, is best known in the skeptical community as Ethan the Freethinking Historian, co-host of Radio Freethinker, a skeptical podcast and radio show on CiTR in Vancouver. And as the former Executive Director of the Centre for Inquiry Vancouver. Ethan graduated with a B.A. in History from UBC in the fall of 2009 and has an active role with skeptical movements in Vancouver and British Columbia. He was an executive member of the UBC Freethinkers, a campus club that promotes skepticism and critical thinking. He still maintains a close relationship with the UBC Freethinkers and helps plan events and organizes skeptical activism as best he can. Currently he works for the Centre for Inquiry as the Executive Director of CFI Vancouver.