Melting the Myth

As global warming shrinks Arctic sea ice cover, sovereignty experts are fretting about a less perilous Northwest Passage. Will rising temperatures invite a parade of foreign cargo ships through the sought-after sea route?

IN A SHOWY DISPLAY OF CANADIAN SOVEREIGNTY, defence minister Bill Graham stirred a minor uproar this summer when he took a chopper to a forlorn speck of rock between Ellesmere Island and Greenland. By stepping on Hans Island, Graham revived a decades old spat with the Danes, who say the island is part of Greenland, and accordingly Danish territory. Since the 1970s both counties have periodically sent a delegation to the barren rock to plant flags and flaunt their dominion. “Welcome to the Danish Island,” read a note Denmark’s minister of Greenland affairs left on a visit in 1984, stuck to a bottle of brandy.

In the weeks following Graham’s foray, Internet sites hosted impassioned declarations over Hans, many by Canadians who saw the island as a sovereignty test, whose outcome would influence other, more critical challenges. “If a little insignificant piece of rock was our only disputed area, we could all have a good laugh,” says Rob Huebert, associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. An expert on Arctic sovereignty, Huebert warns that “if we appear weak on this, I’m afraid we’ll send the wrong message about other ones, which are much more substantial.” While it seems uncharacteristically loutish to squabble over a pile of rock, global warming adds a new sense of urgency to the question of Canadian hegemony in its last frontier. Recent literature and media coverage on Arctic climate change declare that the notoriously ice-choked straits of the Northwest Passage are melting to eventually clear the way for international shipping, leaving Canada with the environmental fall-out and political wrangling over sovereignty.

This summer, some newspapers reported that as early as 2015 the Passage would be regular course for ships from the U.S., Russia and Japan, countries that don’t recognize Canada’s ownership claims over the Arctic shipping lanes. But as ice experts compile more data on Arctic melt patterns, they are finding evidence that global warming may just keep the Passage its inhospitable old self, and the promise of a reliable trade route locked in ice for a century or more.

STILL ONE OF THE LEAST NAVIGATED waterways in the world, the Northwest Passage threads Canada’s archipelago, connecting  the Atlantic and Pacific oceans – a handy shortcut for vessels going between Asia and Europe (see map). The Passage was the stuff of legend for centuries. European explorers obsessed with a direct route  to Asia died in vain attempts to navigate its harrowing seas. Victoria Strait, which trapped the Franklin expedition, is still mostly clogged with slats of heavy ice. Only a handful of vessels sail the Passage each summer, mostly Canadian coast guard icebreakers carrying cargo to Far North communities or escorting ships on scientific missions. Sailboats piloted by daring adventurers, and some tugboats and tow barges, have also made it through when ice conditions were kind.

Despite Canada’s sovereignty claims, American icebreakers have on occasion slogged through the Passage unannounced. In 1969, the ice-strengthened supertanker Manhattan carried U.S. oil through the Passage, ruffling Canadians and prompting the Trudeau government to pass a law requesting Arctic-bound ships to voluntarily notify the coast guard – a typically Canadian gesture that made a point but avoided confrontation. The Manhattan attempted the Passage again in 1970, and the American Polar Sea icebreaker crossed in 1985, stirring up old tensions. Since then, the question of sovereignty over the Passage has remained fairly dormant.

Canadian Ice Service forecaster John Falkingham notes most mariners voluntarily check in with the coast guard because, “it’s for their own benefit to notify officials, because if they get into any kind of trouble up there, it’s a lonely place unless somebody knows where you are.” But this summer, amid a swell of international climate change discussion, minister Graham and Prime Minister Paul Martin put Arctic sovereignty back on the agenda with a quick jaunt to Hans Island.

In covering Graham’s antics, media were quick to bring up the melting Northwest Passage, perpetuating the notion that it would soon open to a parade of cargo ships. A Washington Times feature announced that global warming is making the Northwest Passage “fully navigable in the summer,” and in early August, the Ottawa Citizen reported that “global warming is expected to open the (Passage) waters to traffic all year round.”

This loose and assumptive talk annoys ice researcher Humfrey Melling: “It’s become fact not because it is fact, but because people have repeated it so many times and it’s almost what they want to believe.” Melling spends his time at Canada’s Institute of Ocean Sciences studying daily satellite images and ice charts. He found that while some Arctic waterways are covered in ice for dramatically shorter periods, other areas are the same, or slightly worse, than 30 years ago. “The Canadian archipelago goes through these cycles of dramatic loss of ice, and then a slow recovery period,” he says. “It’s safe to say that we’ve not seen any evidence of progressively improving ice conditions in that area.”

It was only five years ago that the St. Roch II, a flimsy aluminum catamaran, sailed the Passage with relative ease. This summer it took the Swedish icebreaker Oden six days to sail some 480 kilometres from Resolute Bay to Cambridge Bay, on roughly the same route Franklin chose to the Beaufort Sea. The Oden made under three knots an hour and burned something like 80 tons of fuel a day, at a daily cost Melling estimates at $40,000. “This is not the sort of thing that will make shipping companies particularly excited,” Melling says.

As chief ice forecaster, John Falkingham helps compile daily ice data for the coast guard. Based on radar and weather satellites and pictures taken by aircraft, he has reliable data from the last decade and ice charts from 1969. He can say with certainty that the amount of general ice cover in the Canadian Arctic has been decreasing by about four percent a year for the last 30 years. “Taken at face value, if that trend kept up, the area would become mostly free of ice in the summer by about the end of the century,” he says. “But it’s not going to happen within 20 years.” And it’s not going to melt consistently either, he says. “The amount of ice from one summer to the next is extremely variable. People get lulled into this idea that it’s going to get better, but you could have five years in a row when Arctic areas are free of ice, and suddenly you can get a year where there’s just as much ice as in the 1970s.”

This summer, it took the Louis St. Laurent, one of the coast guard’s largest icebreakers, about two-and-a-half days to traverse the roughest part of the Passage: down the Peel Sound between Somerset and Prince of Wales Islands, and through the Victoria and Queen Maud Straits. Ice experts like Melling and Falkingham predict that diminishing sea ice might attract more shipping to the Arctic region in general rather than to the Northwest Passage. It’s the very warming phenomenon causing sea ice to shrink that could keep Arctic waters congested with ice: ancient, hard, thick and several hundred metres wide.

In the past, ice barriers hugging Prince Patrick and Melville Islands have kept hard multi-year ocean ice from penetrating the Passage. But global warming is taking its toll and weakening these barriers, freeing the way for the old ice to flush into the Passage with relative ease. “This is a real hazard to ships,” Falkingham says. “The oldest and thickest ice of the ocean is trying to come into the archipelago. This means that the Passage will probably be the last major Arctic shipping route to open.”

According to Sam Babisky, acting superintendent operations with Canada’s coast guard, August conditions in the Victoria Strait were  predictably bad because of the convergence of old ice. Despite today’s sturdier boat materials and better sailing technologies, Babisky doesn’t dismiss the difficulty of traversing through hard multi-year ice. “These are very dangerous ice conditions, and the risks are no different today than they were for Franklin.”

The latest ice theories don’t allay the concerns of some sovereignty experts. Rob Huebert says despite warming effects, high oil prices will drive development of Arctic fossil fuels, which means more shipping. Huebert says Canada must strengthen its presence in the Arctic, by getting more icebreakers and increasing surveillance capabilities. But what would the federal government do if Japan, Russia, or the United States sent their ships through the Arctic unannounced, wonders Franklyn Griffiths, a University of Toronto  political scientist, and Huebert’s regular adversary on sovereignty issues. “You might be embarrassed to find that nobody is going through,” he says.

A self-described former sovereignty nut, Griffiths has watched the issue fall in and out of fashion with government and the public since the days of the Manhattan. “It depends on an external threat; let somebody try and put a toe across a line of what we consider ours, and we go ballistic,” he says. “But once that threat recedes, the marginality of the Arctic in southern Canada resurfaces. The Arctic for  southern Canadians is fundamentally a matter of coffee table books.”

Griffiths argues for an epistemological foundation for Canada’s claim to dominion over the Arctic, which “is not all that well mapped.” “We don’t know its depths and waterways as well as we should. We should have a mission in this part of the world, and it’s not just to protect and ensure what’s ours. That’s rather pathetic.”