ANCHORAGE - For centuries, explorers have dreamed of sailing through Arctic passages as a shortcut between Europe and Asia.
The dream of navigating the Northwest Passage and the Northeast Passage has never been closer to reality, said Lorna Knaus, chief executive officer of Pacific Rim Board of Trades.
Knaus said global warming, as well as instability in Panama, which took over control of its famous canal from the United States in 1999, will prompt or require the use of Arctic shipping routes.
The 69-year-old Anchorage business consultant said she believes the routes will become viable in her lifetime, and Alaska and the rest of the world must begin thinking about infrastructure that would support the shipping routes.
The Northwest Passage winds through Canada's Arctic archipelago and along the northern coast of Alaska between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. The Northeast Passage goes around the top of the Arctic coasts of Norway and Russia.
Knaus believes that any coastal country along the routes will benefit tremendously by adding such things as port facilities and warehouses to accommodate the thousands of ships that would transit offshore.
"I'm trying to get people to consider our future," Knaus said. "The weather is changing and we have the technology now to do this."
She admits that her challenge of focusing on the Arctic routes generally has been met with a cool reception. But some Arctic experts believe Knaus' ideas have at least some merit.
Lawson Brigham, deputy executive director of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission in Alexandria, Va., said Knaus is "on the mark."
"It sounds like she's a visionary and taking a holistic view of our changing planet," said Brigham. He is a former U.S. Coast Guard captain who commanded some of the service's icebreaking cutters.
Brigham said that while scientists argue over what is causing global warming, they do agree that the rising world temperatures have caused the permanent ice cap over the North Pole to shrink in thickness by about 43 percent. That, he said, may allow the more popular Northwest Passage route to become navigable in the summer months in a few years, or for even more of the year by mid-century or earlier.
"A few years ago, no one would have dreamed of seeing a ship in the middle of the Arctic," Brigham said. "Since 1987 there have been 48 ships through or deep into the Arctic, most of them in the summer months."
Ships traveling from Europe to the Far East via the Panama Canal must travel about 14,500 miles. The Northwest Passage cuts the distance to just more than 9,000 miles.
It won't be ice stopping ships from plying the Arctic, but economics or environmentalists, he said.
"The potential impacts to indigenous fishing grounds and the noise of the ships breaking ice would be great," Brigham said. He also said an oil spill in the Arctic likely would devastate the fragile ecosystem.