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Sea passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans along the northern coast of North America. The search for a commercial sea route around the American land barrier dates from the end of the 15th century and attracted explorers such as Jacques Cartier, Francis Drake, Martin Frobisher, and Capt. James Cook. The passage was finally navigated successfully in 1903–05 by Roald Amundsen. As a modern trade route it has been only marginally useful, because of the difficulties in navigating around the polar ice cap and the giant icebergs in the Atlantic between Greenland and Baffin Island and in the Pacific in the Bering Strait. The U.S. and Canadian governments have tried to encourage international commerce in the passage, noting how much it would shorten many international shipping distances. However, the cost of strengthening ships against ice and potentially high insurance rates for vessels used in Arctic service have been factors inhibiting the development of the Northwest Passage as a trade route.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on Northwest Passage, visit Britannica.com.