09/12/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 11/11/2014 05:59 EST

Franklin expedition discovery shows change in Arctic

Thediscoverythisweek  of a shipwreck from the doomed Franklin Expedition shows how much conditions in the Arctic have changed since they set out in 1845. John Franklin and other explorers at the time were unable to make it through the Northwest Passage because of impenetrable ice. Now, cruise ships are offering luxury tours of the area.

At the time of the Franklin expedition, the Arctic was a more formidable place than it is today. The Industrial Revolution, and the consumption of fossil fuels that came with it, had just begun, so the Earth’s atmosphere had not yet responded with its accelerated temperature climb and climate change. Ice was more widespread and thicker across the Arctic than it is today.

Franklin’s crew suffered two years of waiting through long, hard winters while their ships were trapped in ice, a wait that cost Franklin his life and led the crew to wander off on their own, after the ships themselves were entombed by the crushing forces of the same ice.  

Even later expeditions that did manage to make it through the Northwest Passage — first, by Norwegian Roald Amundsen in 1903,  then later by the Canadian RCMP vessel St. Roche in 1940 — took multiple years just to cross once, because the ice was so thick and difficult to plow through.

Since then, climate change has eliminated roughly  half of the polar ice cap, both in area and in thickness, making it much easier for ships to cruise through the northern waters, as well as spend time looking for shipwrecks. This is not to say there is no ice at all; in fact, it was moving ice that forced the search team south from their original search area, which serendipitously led to the discovery of a Franklin ship.

Recently, I was on an Arctic cruise that stopped at Beechey Island, a small, rocky isle just off the south coast of Devon Island in Nunavut. This marks the entrance to the Northwest Passage and was the site of the doomed Franklin expedition’s first winter stop.

Today, just up from a beach, lies a line of five weathered wooden markers, the graves of three members of Franklin’s crew, plus two crew from search teams that came looking for them later.  On this barren land, where no trees or grasses grow, the wind seems to blow a little colder. The bleak rocky island, so far away and so empty compared to their British homeland, would have been a desolate place to die. And that was only the beginning of the ill-fated journey

Cruising through these open waters today, it’s hard to imagine the conditions faced by men who fought bitter cold, harsh winds, disease and mental anguish, all in an attempt to find a shortcut from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

That shortcut is now opening wider and wider as the ice continues to decline. Climate scientists predict that summers in the Arctic will be ice-free within a few decades, making the Northwest Passage a commercial corridor that will bring profits to industry, the Inuit and the federal government.

This week’s discovery of the lost Franklin ship is a proud achievement for Canadian science and technology, which is ironic because over the past few years, funding for science in the Arctic has been cut back.  Since the International Polar Year,  in which Canada played a leading role, hundreds of scientists have been dismissed, programs cancelled, and a polar research station was to be shut down, only to be saved by scientific and public outcry.  

So, while it is a remarkable accomplishment to finally locate one of the most famous shipwrecks in history, the changing environment that helped make that discovery possible still needs scientific eyes to keep an eye on it, because not only has it changed dramatically since Franklin’s time, but that environment is still changing.

(Tune into Quirks & Quarks  this week, as we speak with one of the leaders of the research expedition that found the lost ship).