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Canada's Stranglehold On Fabled Passage Waning

Posted on Sunday, May 18 at 10:34 by RoyalHighlander

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But decades of shrinking polar ice in the Canadian Arctic also exposes potential problems such as environmental damage, policing and infrastructure needs.

And perhaps most disheartening: Canada's sovereignty claim on the northern waterway could be washed away.

"I think you can kiss Canadian sovereignty goodbye," said Rob Huebert, a marine law specialist and a director of the University of Calgary's Centre of Military and Strategic Studies.

"I don't think we'll be able to maintain our claim that they are internal waters, but it's not necessarily the disaster some people might think," said Huebert, one of the world's leading experts on the Northwest Passage.

"We may not have complete authority over the creation of the regulation and jurisdiction but we're still going to play a major role," said Huebert.


Several European countries and the United States dispute Canada's claim that the passage is an internal waterway. And a U.S. icebreaker made a high-profile crossing in 1985 without Canadian permission.

The Canadian Coast Guard has five icebreakers, the Canadian Navy none. Last summer the navy sailed into far northern waters for the first time in more than a decade to reinforce sovereignty. But Huebert says the gesture was merely token and questions how truly committed the federal government is to the opening of the waterway.

"The most critical issue is accessibility," said Huebert. "What type of facilities and infrastructures do we have and what is our capability to develop that infrastructure to deal with this increased accessibility?

"As soon as the ice is gone you are open to a whole host of international interests and players. Are we ready to deal with the problems that's going to create?"

Problems include security, law and order, environmental and immigration issues.

Huebert believes the federal government isn't ready to deal with those issues and "won't be ready until after it happens. "It's a dilemma, a long-term problem. It's like watching a slow train coming," said Huebert.

"I can be sympathetic a little bit because we're talking a period of time between 15 to 40 years. I mean let's face it: our political leadership had trouble dealing with the SARS crisis, which was immediate," said Huebert.

Meanwhile, the rapidly melting Arctic ice pack has lost 40% of its thickness and 10% of its extent in the last few decades, says Gunter Weller, executive director of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA), an eight-nation committee studying the implications of a warmer North.

"We have certainly seen a considerable warming in all of the Arctic areas over the last 30 years," said Weller, contacted at the Alaska Climate Research Center (ACRC) at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

"And we have some idea of what the ice looked like 100 years ago and there is also a long-term trend that's visible," said Weller.

Could this lead to commercial shipping traffic in the Northwest Passage within 15 years?

"Very clearly, yes. My understanding is that a lot of the companies now are beginning to become interested ... because it's obviously a lot shorter route," said Weller.

A major thaw will produce enormous change on northern commerce, ecology and native cultures. And under ACIA - 100 scientists from Canada, the U.S., Russia, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Finland are studying those impacts.

"What we're interested in is what climate change might do to ecosystems whether ocean or land, to people, to economic activities, including oil exploration and shipping and fisheries," said Weller.

Lawson Brigham is deputy executive director of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission in Alexandria, Virginia.

"The world is getting warmer and that warming is first recognized most greatly in the high latitudes - down in Antarctica and of course up in the Arctic. And one of the great canaries is this sea-ice change," said Brigham.

"Surface area temperatures are rising in most areas, but not all areas, of the Arctic. That's an indication of great change," said Brigham.

"I have argued that I think some governments or administrations - I'm not picking just on Canada, it's round the whole circumpolar Arctic - would probably think if the ice is retreating (they) don't have to have any ice service or any forecasting or any icebreakers.

"But it's just the reverse. There will be, I would guess, over the next 50 years a transition time where you're going to need more services," said Brigham.

"In terms of Canada, you're probably going to have to have greater infrastructure. If you have the retreat of sea ice, people may want to build a few ports. Then you have all of the environmental issues."

Who do you think has sovereignty of the passage?

"Well, I think there are disagreements. I just leave it at that. Canada has certainly claimed it as internal waters."

But doesn't Russia also claim its Arctic sea passage?

"In the United States we don't agree with those positions. Certainly those are issues but I think the real key is how the international community will deal with the increased number of ships in the area," said Brigham.

"Our first step would be in protecting the environment and protecting the people there. Outside of the disagreements of the countries on the straits and the navigation there has been great movement towards addressing these issues," said Brigham.

Like another Exxon Valdez spill?

"Sure, that's the spectre of what people think of first, right? The ships are coming, omigod, the world is going to end. But that's not necessarily the case," said Brigham.

John Falkingham, chief of forecast operations for Canadian Ice Services, under Environment Canada, says there's been "a decrease in the amount of ice over a 30-year-period that's fairly remarkable.


"If we look at the summer minimum in the Canadian Arctic in the late September period when the ice has melted the most it's going to, and we look at the area of sea that's covered by ice we find that area of ice has decreased by about 24% over the period 1969 to 2001.

"There's a quarter less ice in general," he said.

Falkingham cautions that it hasn't been a steady decline and there is considerable variation from year to year. Although there's no scientific means to accurately project the next 20 years in the Arctic, scientists rely on global climate models for projections, the same models used to predict global climate warming.

Half a dozen climate models from around the world universally predict less sea ice than there is now.

"And the Canadian Climate Model shows the entire Canadian Arctic will be totally free of ice in the summertime by the middle of the century," said Falkingham.

The Northwest Passage zigzags through the Arctic archipelago from Baffin Island to the Beaufort Sea and into the Pacific through the Bering Strait.

The search for it began in the 1400s when European rulers dispatched expeditions to find a shortcut to the riches of Asia.

British explorer John Franklin died in 1847 searching for the passage after his ships froze in the ice off King William Island.

Earlier explorers such as Henry Hudson, Martin Frobisher and William Baffin had also sought it.

It took another half-century even after the passage was finally discovered for a single ship to sail through it. Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen did it in Sixty years later came the first successful commercial navigation when the American supertanker Manhattan chugged through the ice floes of the route.

Today the typical navigation season is about eight weeks and although the passage is never completely ice-free, the amount is becoming less and less.

Most ships that enter these frigid waters are ice-strengthened and reasonably capable. But less ice means less capable ships will do it.

Already navigation in the Arctic has increased to a level no one predicted 30 years ago. Commercial traffic is up to 300 ship passages a summer, although only three or four ships complete the entire route each summer.

Even cruise ships now sail the Arctic waters.

"Less ice means general cargo ships will be able to make use of the passage," said Falkingham. "That's a good thing from an economic sense but also bad because there are still going to be these years of bad ice."

Falkingham has already fielded one call from an Italian shipping company who had heard the Northwest Passage was open and wanted to know the depths of the strait.

"They didn't even ask about ice," said Falkingham.

"So some ship gets up there, an Iberian tanker or something like that, thinking they're going to have a nice easy open water route and lo and behold they run into a bunch of ice somewhere and get a hole in them and cause pollution. Then winter comes along and the oil is in the ice and it's a big mess that Canada is going to have to clean up," said Falkingham.

Consider the enormous environmental damage in 1989 when 50 million litres of crude oil gushed out of the Exxon Valdez off the Alaskan coast and you get the idea.

"Regardless of who legally owns the area and what the claims are, it's our backyard and it's our people who live there and we're going to get stuck with having to do something about it if there is an accident. Nobody else is going to come in and clean it up," said Falkingham.

"That's the big danger and the big risk we foresee


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