Northwest Passage, water routes through the Arctic Archipelago, N Canada, and along the northern coast of Alaska between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Even though the explorers of the 16th cent. demonstrated that the American continents were a true barrier to a short route to East Asia, there still remained hope that a natural passage would be found leading directly through the barrier. During the same period, the idea of reaching China and India by sailing over the North Pole or by sailing through a passage north of Europe and Asia—the Northeast Passage—also became popular. The Northwest Passage, however, remained the most important goal, and the search for the passage continued even though at that time such a route had no commercial value.
Proof of the existence of the passage in the mid-1800s only revealed how difficult its transit would be, and it was not until the early 20th cent. that the first transit was accomplished. The first commercial ship to successfully transit the Northwest Passage was the SS Manhattan, an ice-breaking tanker, in 1969. In 1988 the United States, which contends that the passage is an international strait through which all navigation may pass unimpeded, and Canada, in whose sovereign waters that passage lies, agreed that U.S. icebreakers could cross its arctic waters, but only after approval on a case-by-case basis. Although the straits that form the passage have historically been ice-clogged year-round, by 2007 warming in the Arctic made the area almost ice-free in late summer.
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