Those nice, polite Canadians!
Why, back in 1969, when the United States wanted to make a big point of sending a ship through the Northwest Passage in the far, frozen Arctic, those Canadians insisted that they were happy to grant permission; they even sent an icebreaker to assist!
The Americans were up to no good, from a Canadian viewpoint, they were attempting to assert the right to travel the legendary Passage in an ice-strengthened oil tanker. And the Canadians were using their politeness to insist they have the right to control passage in the Passage.
That standoff is important nearly 40 years later, as the inexorable melting of the polar ice cap due to global warming opens up the Passage for a brief summer window, with the prospect of more in coming years.
Our Canadian neighbors are beginning to worry about control of that frozen wasteland, a polar archipelago made up of 19,000 islands stretching from the Canadian mainland to the North Pole. It's a big story in Canadian newspapers.
The Northwest Passage figures in all histories of North America. Early explorers searched for a northern sea route linking Europe to Asia's rich trading potential. The thick, unyielding ice turned them back.
Arctic sea ice has lost 25 percent of its area in the past three decades, and the ice sheet has thinned by 32 to 40 percent, scientists report. The U.S. Navy predicts that the Passage will soon be open at least one month each summer to non-ice-strengthened vessels, which could cut 40 percent off a trip through the Panama Canal.
Global warming will open opportunities and challenges for both Canada and Russia; there is a Northern Passage around the northern tip of Russia that has similar benefits to the Northwest Passage.
There is also oil beneath them thar frozen seas — probably a lot of it, although it will be expensive to develop. Oil, whether drilling or shipping, raises issues well beyond economic benefits. They include environmental threats in a fragile area, expansion of the northern fishery, impact on native culture, and threats to national security.
Since we can hardly count on easy negotiations — let alone concessions — from Russia, America will look to Canada for an agreement on use of the Northwest Passage.
The two nations, among the world's closest allies, do not agree on sovereignty of the Passage, and some sticky diplomacy lies ahead. It is vital that the Senate ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty, sidelined 25 years ago by the Reagan administration but recently endorsed by President Bush.
The land on either side of the water is clearly Canadian. But control of the waterway is disputed. America, always protective of open shipping lanes, believes the Passage is an international strait connecting two expanses of high seas and used for international navigation.
Canada has asserted a claim to everything between the 60th and 141st meridians of longitude, all the way to the North Pole, but this "sector" theory is not widely accepted. Canada may be on thicker ice with a 1970 law extending its territorial sea to 12 nautical miles, which covers the Passage.
International law expert Michael Byers of the University of British Columbia earlier this year warned that "any further usage for international navigation might contribute to the Northwest Passage becoming an international strait, (making it) critically important that no further non-consensual transits occur." Canada, Byers adds, is poorly equipped to prevent such transits.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government will build six to eight new armed Arctic patrol vessels, but they will operate only from June to October; Canada remains short of heavy-ice vessels. Harper also plans a deepwater port in an oil-rich area of the Arctic.
It turns out that the U.S. is not well prepared, either, to exploit the new route or to protect against its possible use for military or illegal activities. One analyst notes that the Navy has cut its Arctic research funds and allowed its icebreakers to fall into disrepair.
The last time there was a showdown in the Passage came during that 1969 trial run of the American tanker. As the tanker crawled through the icy strait near Resolute Bay, two Inuit hunters drove their dogsleds into its path. The tanker ground to a halt until the hunters — having made their point — moved aside. Byers feels that the incident may be the best Canadian legal defense of its sovereignty.
Predictably, both Canada and the U.S. worry about national security. But it is hard to imagine al-Qaida invading via the Passage and those tough Inuit hunters!
Floyd J. McKay, a journalism professor emeritus at Western Washington University, is a regular contributor to Times editorial pages. E-mail him at email@example.com
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