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Passage’s melting ice must be addressed: scholar
Description: The disappearance of sea ice in Canada’s Arctic is an indication that climate change is real and must be addressed if the country intends to maintain its sovereignty, says Dr. Michael Byers.
Date: 28 March 2007
Author: Julia Skikavich
Source: Whitehorse Star
The disappearance of sea ice in Canada’s Arctic is an indication that climate change is real and must be addressed if the country intends to maintain its sovereignty, says Dr. Michael Byers.

"It’s not just a climate change issue," Byers told a lecture at Yukon College on Tuesday.

"It’s an economic benefit issue, it’s a security issue, it’s an environment issue. It’s the largest and most important public policy issue of our age."

Byers took part in an expedition through the Northwest Passage in October 2006.

On the trip, the voyagers on the Coast Guard’s Amundsen became the first people in history to follow the route through Bellot Strait in the month of October. It’s an area that is usually packed with sea ice up to 10 metres thick and as hard as concrete slabs.

But on this mission, the scientists and crew onboard encountered hardly any ice, only finding one small area safe to put people on the flows and the rest of the passage lined with spots not much more than three or four inches thick, said Byers.

It was so troubling to the veteran captain of the ship that he sent up helicopters trying to find the ice in what is usually a carefully navigated and challenging route.

"Climate change is having a more dramatic effect on Arctic sea ice than policy makers realize and even then scientists realize," said Byers.

If Canada and the United States don’t soon acknowledge the implications of a seasonally ice-free Northwest Passage there is the potential for huge environmental and security issues, said Byers, the Canada research chair in global
politics and international law at the University of British Columbia.

Byers said research suggests the Northwest Passage’s sea ice will be open enough to allow international shipping by about 2012 or 2015. Other studies show that the entire Arctic Ocean will be seasonally ice-free by about 2030.

A seasonally open Northwest Passage will provide a commercially viable shipping route 7,000 kilometres shorter than the current route through the Panama Canal.

International companies are already aware of this and understand the ice is disappearing and that Canada has done very little to exert its sovereignty or regulate the area, said Byers.

It’s an issue that must be addressed, said Byers, and end the quibbling with the United States regarding whether the Northwest Passage is international or internal waters.

"Up until now, we’ve simply relied on the sea ice to maintain the status quo," he said. "With the melting sea ice, our interests, their interests are in play – environmental, security. We can’t litigate; it’s too risky. We need to negotiate and we need to negotiate right now."

Canada claims the passage constitutes Canadian internal waters, because of straight baselines that have been drawn around the country’s Arctic region and the fact that Inuit have occupied and used the ice on the route for thousands
of years.

The United States argues two nonconsensual commercial voyages have already passed through the route – making it international strait.

"It’s not the volume of international shipping that matters, it’s the fact that it has occurred. So we are into legally murky waters pretty quickly," said

An option that neither country seems to want to pursue is to take the decision on the definition of the passage to an international tribunal, said Byers, because neither can present a rock-solid claim to its position.

"We need some kind of negotiated settlement," he said. "Agreeing to disagree is no longer an option."

Currently, Canada has in the realm of 250 full-time soldiers providing a military presence in an area that amounts to 40 per cent of the space of the second-largest country in the world, said Byers.

If Canada does not provide greater enforcement for its laws and policies in the North, it risks environmental catastrophe, security threats and movement of illegal arms and increased illegal immigration, said Byers.

Canada must present a clear commitment to develop an enforcement strategy if it ever wants the United States to take its claim to the Northwest Passage seriously, said Byers.

The situation, however, also provides the country with the clear directive to assert its sovereignty in the North but the political will must be there to do so, he said.

"We need to have clear and strong laws and regulations that apply in the Northwest Passage to protect both American and Canadian interests."

Politicians are currently "talking past each other," said Byers, and not dealing with the real issues.

"There needs to be a dialogue, because there needs to be much more urgency then we currently see."

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