From the Vancouver Sun, May 2, 2002, Final Edition, p. A13

Shrinking polar ice cap raises alarm bells about Arctic sovereignty and spills


YELLOWKNIFE - It would be easy to write off last month's all-too-Canadian display of sovereignty over the waters of the High Arctic as a publicity stunt with little significance in the real world of geopolitics.

After all, how seriously would anyone take a fleet of snowmachines driven by lightly trained hunters armed with nothing more than .303 Lee-Enfield rifles? That was the scene in the vicinity of the magnetic north pole on April 18, as 29 members of the Canadian Ranger Patrol celebrated the 60th anniversary of the least formal arm of the Canadian Forces.

To a large extent, it was a stunt -- a $750,000 stunt that drew only a smattering of media coverage. But behind the bravura, the flag-raising and the congratulatory satellite phone call from the prime minister was a serious message, one that far too few Canadians will hear.

Why should we care? Because the question of who will control the Arctic Ocean when it is no longer an impenetrable barrier between the Atlantic and Pacific goes to the heart of the country's identity and its political future.

To understand the impetus for last week's mission to Magnetic North, the best place to turn is the climate record. It shows a disturbing trend of warming temperatures and thinning ice around the pole. Some skeptics point to vast uncertainties in the data, but one sector of society -- the military -- considers the science solid enough to worry about.

In Naval Operations in an Ice-Free Arctic, a recently declassified report on a symposium held last year in, ironically enough, Hawaii, the U.S. Office of Naval Research concludes that "within five to 10 years, the Northwest Passage will be open to non-ice-strengthened vessels for at least one month each summer."

If that doesn't raise alarm bells, remember that no major world power recognizes Canada's claim to the waters that lie between the islands of the Arctic Archipelago, including the Northwest Passage. Until now, the point has been moot. But, as the report notes under its "Future Threats" section: "An ice-free Arctic will offer new opportunities for science, commercial shipping and development -- particularly oil and gas exploitation. The probability of a military presence and potential for hostile actions logically follows."

There isn't much new science in the report. But the fact that the U.S. defence establishment, and our own, is taking it to heart should be cause for a national debate over our military capabilities in the north. Climatologists predict that within a few decades, the summer polar cap will shrink by 40 per cent. By 2060, the cap could disappear entirely each summer. So much for the Great White North.

The same thing is happening in Russian waters. Some scientists, including Andrew Weaver of the University of Victoria, suspect the Northeast Passage will open to year-round traffic long before the Canadian route. Either way chops thousands of expensive kilometres off the conventional routes through the Panama Canal or Indian Ocean. Already the Russian oil company, Lukoil, has begun the process of building a domestic Arctic tanker fleet. Four years ago, it bought a controlling interest in the Murmansk Shipping Co., with its nuclear and non-nuclear icebreakers.

The potential environmental threat is enormous. The Exxon Valdez ran aground relatively close to a major urban centre and a port equipped with the proper response equipment yet still managed to wreak havoc on Alaska's coastal ecosystem. A tanker unfortunate enough to lose its cargo in Nunavut or the Northwest Territories would not be so fortunate.

The good news is Canada is aware of the challenges that climate change and a warming pole are bringing. Lt. Col. Rory Kilburn, second in command of the Canadian Forces Northern Area headquarters in Yellowknife, reports that his staff is hoping to test a new over-the-horizon radar system next year on the east coast of Baffin Island. In theory, the technology being developed at the Defence Research Establishment in Ottawa should be able to detect vessels across Baffin Bay, as far as the coast of Greenland.

If it works, one base will be set up on each end of the Northwest Passage. And the Forces want to augment the radar with new satellites, underwater acoustic monitors and unmanned aerial reconnaissance aircraft.

If they get the millions it will cost to keep an eye on the Arctic, that is. Considering that the auditor general just pointed out that the Forces are 30 years away from reaching a staffing level adequate to meet their mandate, the wish list would seem unrealistic.

There is one alternative to footing the bill, but it's not one many will welcome. We could let the Americans do it for us, which is pretty much what their new continental defence vision unveiled last month suggests they'd like to do. The attention given the Northern Command agenda so far hasn't paid much attention to Arctic sovereignty, but there seems little doubt the U.S. has its eyes on the region.

One more excerpt from the U.S. Navy report is in order. "The differences between Canada and the U.S. on these issues are significant and have a direct impact on the development of national and maritime strategies for naval operations in an ice-free Arctic. These differences must be resolved."

James Hrynyshyn is a freelance science writer in Yellowknife.

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