Canada risks losing control of shipping near environmentally sensitive islands
Yellowknife, N.W.T. -- The massive and rapid retreat of the Arctic pack ice could open the once-mythic Northwest Passage to shipping within as little as a decade.
And Canada is in danger of losing its claim to the waterway and the fragile ecosystem it passes through unless it acts quickly to strengthen its Arctic presence, passage experts say.
For the past several years, scientists have predicted that climate change will completely melt Arctic ice in summertime by the year 2050. But new research by University of Manitoba scientist Dave Barber has found that the Northwest Passage, a 5,000-kilometre route through Canada's Arctic archipelago, could become ice-free much sooner.
"In 10 or 15 years, if you follow the rate of retreat of the multi-year ice edge, it's going to happen in that period given the conditions we have right now," said Barber, who holds the Canada research chair in Arctic system science. He is one of the country's leading experts on the northern ice, and is currently working on a paper detailing his new findings.
"For shipping companies to start to refocus on using the Northwest Passage on a regular basis; I think a lot of them are starting to think about it now."
Depending on a ship's destination, travelling the long-sought northern route could potentially shave 7,000 kilometres from the maritime distances between Asia and Europe. Ships now traverse the Panama Canal or, if they are too large to fit, sail around the horn of South America.
Travel through the Northwest Passage has always been dangerous to ships because of the presence of multi-year ice. Iridescent blue in colour, this older ice has survived several summers and takes on the density of concrete. It is so hard that even icebreakers transiting the Arctic attempt to steer around it.
But little of that older ice actually forms in the passage. Instead, much of it floats in through M'Clure Strait, a broad inlet north of Banks Island, after breaking off the massive Arctic pack ice and being carried on ocean currents.
Barber has found the pack ice is retreating so quickly that its southern extent will soon be north of M'Clure Strait. Once that happens, ocean currents will no longer carry the multi-year ice that breaks off into the Northwest Passage, leaving the channels through the archipelago with little but first-year ice.
That weaker ice will likely melt in summer and is much easier to navigate through with even moderately ice-strengthened ships.
"(The passage) will continue to have an input of multi-year ice up there, but it has to come down through the area near Cornwallis Island (which is a far smaller channel)," Barber said. "So there will be much less multi-year ice once that ice retreats north from
M'Clure Strait, and that would happen in 10-15 years."
Scientists have long known that the pack ice is rapidly melting away. This summer, it retreated to its smallest size in history: about 5.5 million square kilometres, about four times the size of Quebec. In 1979, it was 7.5 million square kilometres, about the size of Australia.
And the melt is happening faster than scientists ever thought possible. Up until two years ago, Barber's rule of thumb was that the ice pack would lose about 34,000 square kilometres per year, an area slightly larger than Belgium. He has now revised that number to 74,000 square kilometres per year, or about the size of the Czech Republic.
The ultimate result has been that the five smallest recorded sizes for the Arctic ice pack have occurred within the past seven years.
The ice is also getting thinner. It has lost about 40 per cent of its thickness in the past half-century.
The new realities of Arctic shipping became clear to Barber last year when he sailed the Russian North-East Passage, from the port of Murmansk to the Laptev sea.
"We didn't come across any sea ice at all," he said. "We had to go several hundred kilometres north of our planned cruise to run into the ice edge. So it was very dramatic and it affirmed to me the reality of these northern sea routes. It took us four days to get from Murmansk to a point just north of Tokyo. We were almost to Alaska before we stopped.
"It's amazingly quick compared to going around the bulge of the planet."
Shipping through Arctic routes could pose serious sovereignty concerns for Canada, which claims the waterways of the Northwest Passage as internal. Much of the rest of the world, including the U.S., has called it an international strait. If Canada can prove its position, Ottawa will be able to place strict environmental controls on ships passing through. If not, ships will be regulated by less-stringent world maritime rules.
Michael Byers holds the Canada research chair in global politics and
international law and is currently under contract to Ottawa to study sovereignty issues with the passage. He says if Canada doesn't take swift action, it risks losing its argument.
In November 2004, former United States ambassador Paul Cellucci said the U.S. might be willing to side with Canada on the issue as a matter of homeland defence, but Canadian authorities have failed to take up the invitation, Byers said.
"We're behind the curve on this one," he said.
"The argument of internal waters is based on the fact that (the passage) has never been used as a regular means of transit by vessels from foreign states. Now that position is an arguable position, but it's very vulnerable to unauthorized transit by foreign vessels.
"So if we were to see two or three unauthorized transits, our legal argument would essentially disappear. And with the melting ice, the possibility of unauthorized transits is increasing every year."
Current Canadian regulations do not require ships sailing into the Arctic to notify and register with Canadian authorities. That notification should become obligatory, Byers said, adding that the country needs to revive its plans for an icebreaker tough enough to work in the Arctic year-round. South Africa currently has such a vessel, but Canada does not.
Canada also needs to station a helicopter at Resolute Bay, Nunavut, mid-way through the passage, he said.
"Then if we ever wanted to be able to put a few soldiers on the deck of a foreign vessel, we would have that ability on short notice," he said. "We could enforce our environmental laws and registration requirements in a way that we simply can't at the moment."