From Up Here, April 2001
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As world temperatures rise, the arctic ice pack declines. The Northwest Passage, once an impenetrable waterway, is becoming more accessible. Some argue it puts Canadian sovereignty at risk. How much should we worry?


The polar bears don't come around much anymore in Joseph Aglukkaq's neighborhood, and that worries the mayor of Gjoa Haven. The population could be in trouble, or the hundreds of bears that used to roam the frozen waters of the M'Clintock Channel may just have moved on to parts unknown. Either way, without the bears or, more specifically, the big-game hunting parties willing to pay tens of thousands of American dollars for the chance to hunt them, the community is in trouble.

Whatever explanation turns out to be right, the implications go far beyond Gjoa Haven. If Aglukkaq and a growing number of biologists and climatologists are right, the source of the problem is a shortage of something everyone in the Arctic used to take for granted: ice. For without it, everything in the M'Clintock Channel, and the rest of what's known as the Northwest Passage, changes. The weather, the wildlife, the economy, the culture, even the politics.

"We used to have ice all the time, but it's melted for the last few years now, and it's been noticed by the hunters," Aglukkaq says. "A lot of times it would never melt, but now it melts just about every year, and I believe that's the major reason for the decline in the M'Clintock area." Polar bears, he points out, need large expanses of thick ice to hunt for their main prey, seals. For a polar bear, too much open water is a death sentence.

More open water in the M'Clintock Channel, a historically unpredictable waterway that bisects the southern reaches of the Arctic Archipelago, suggests that much of the Northwest Passage could one dayoffer an ice-free season sufficiently long and predictable to open an international shipping lane. The prospect is tempting for shipping lines. A voyage through the Northwest Passage shaves 5000 nauticial miles off the trip between Asia and Europe. And with those ships will come ecological threats and political challenges to the country that claims sovereignty over no-longer icy and forbidding waters.

Last year, a new U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker called The Healy, made a successful transit of the passage. The ensuing media reports emphasized the delicate détente between Canada and the U.S. The spectre of global warming gave those reports a new sense of urgency. In 1969, the Humble Oil Company tanker SS Manhattan, accompanied by two icebreakers, made a transit of the Passage without asking permission. The resulting public outcry led Parliament to pass the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act, a law the U.S. protested until 1988, when a series of diplomatic exchanges over the Polar Sea's planned trip through the same route eventually produced the Agreement on Arctic Cooperation. Last year's transit by the Healy prompted another round of scrutiny, including feature articles in the Globe and Mail, Boston Globe, New York Times and Times of London.

The United States has never recognized Canada's claim to sovereignty over the Northwest Passage. And while both countries treat the dispute with courtesy, there is no resolution in sight. It isn't just American designs on the northermost reaches of the western hemisphere that feed the fears of foreign affairs community, thought. Donald McRae, a University of Ottawa law professor, told a House of Commons committee in 1996 not to take the threat lightly, especially when it comes to submarine traffic: "Over time, a sufficient number of submarine transits could turn the waters into an international strait. This is a threat not just from the United States; it's a threat that would exist from the Soviet Union or any other country that is able to transit below the surface of the waters of the Arctic."

While little has changed on the diplomatic front. The same cannot be said for the climate and the science that studies it. It is no longer a rhetorical stretch to say the M'Clintock Channel polar bears may turn out to be the Arctic analog of the miners' canaries, only they're running out of ice instead of air. Ten years ago, few scientists studying such things would dare to claim they understood what was going on. Today, even a shadow of a doubt is hard to find. Climate change is all too real, and although "global warming" is a somewhat inexact phrase to describe a complex collection of meteorological variables, it pretty much hits the nail on the head in Canada's North.

Peering down from orbit, satellites have seen snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere decline by about 10 per cent since the 1960s. Lakes and rivers at high latitudes have lost two weeks of ice cover, while glaciers have retreated staggering distances over the past century. On the Arctic Ocean, spring and summer sea ice cover has shrunk 10 to 15 percent since the 1950s, while in late summer and early fall, the ice is 40 percent thinner, and growing thinner every year. It's data like those that played key roles in shaping the language and the tenor of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This January, the panel, which represents hundreds of the world's leading climatologists, gave its strongest warning yet: "In the light of new evidence and taking into account the remaining uncertainties, most of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations."

In other words, the world is getting warmer, and it's our fault. So far, the Earth is about one degree warmer because of the heat-trapping greenhouse gases we are spewing from our tailpipes and power plants, and it's going to get a lot warmer in the coming century, as much as five or six more degrees warmer, according to computer model projections that form the basis of the latest United Nations report on climate change. All that heat has to go somewhere, and melting the polar ice caps is one of the obvious destinations. "There's been a fair amount of observational evidence suggesting that the ice cover is getting thinner over the whole of the Arctic Ocean," says Tom Agnew of the Meteorological Service of Canada. "Because it's over such a large area, and because of this trend, it supports the idea that climate warming is a possible reason."

Agnew's confidence can be traced to more than just anecdotal tales from hunters and boaters. Over the past few years, American and Canadian governments have begun to spend the research dollars necessary on long-term studies of polar ice conditions. Among the most ambitious was the Surface Heat Budget of the Arctic Ocean experiment of 1997-98, in which the crew of the Canadian ice-breaker Des Groseiller froze themselves into the pack ice of the Beaufort Sea for 18 months, giving 162 scientists a long-term research platform. The SHEBA findings have since been backed up by recently declassified data from U.S. submarines employing "upward-looking" sonar from beneath the ice. "Submarines have been going under the ice over the Arctic Ocean for years -- decades --and much of it has been military, top-secret," Agnew says. "Normal scientists and government, non-military scientists have now had a chance to look at it, and this is why we're seeing this trend toward thinner ice."

Combined with satellite data that show the permanent ice pack melting back in the summer to 500 kilometres from the mainland, where it used to melt back only 200 kilometres, the scientific case for a dramatic change in the North seems ironclad.

The typical Canadian — or American or European — vision of the Great White North is one of infinite snowscapes, ceaseless winds and relentless cold. It's not easy to reconcile those terms with the reality of climate change. But the truth is, change is nothing new to the Arctic. It was climate change in the form of the last Ice Age, the resulting lower sea levels and a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska, that allowed the first wave of North American colonization some 12,000 years ago. The original Alaskans moved east over the subsequent millennia, establishing the Pre-Dorset and Dorset cultures as far east as Greenland and remaining long after rising sea levels flooded the land bridge. A more dramatic warming spell thawed the waters of the Arctic Archipelago beginning about 1100 years ago, giving whales and other marine mammals of the Bering and Beaufort seas a chance to fill new ecological niches in eastern waters. Following those prey were the Thule, who eventually displaced the Dorset people and in time gave rise to today's Inuit.

By AD 1400, however, the holiday was over. The entire Northern Hemisphere cooled, putting an end to Viking settlements and explorations in Greenland and Newfoundland, and giving Europeans winters so cold the period became known as "the Little Ice Age." Among the many consequences in what would become known as Canada was the stubborn refusal of the Northwest Passage to yield to dozens of attempts at navigation. Sir John Franklin and his competitors were victims of bad timing. Four hundred years earlier or a hundred years later, and they probably would have made it. Roald Amundsen, the first European to find a route through the passage in 1905, just happened to be lucky enough to born at the end of the Little Ice Age. Today's explorers are certainly having better luck. Jim Delgado, director of the Vancouver Maritime Museum, spent a few months last year aboard a refitted and renamed Coast Guard catamaran, retracing the first successful circumnavigation of North America. He and his fellow travellers aboard the St. Roch II were accompanied by an icebreaker to make sure they didn't end up stuck in the ice like Franklin, but according to Delgado, there really wasn't much need for help. "It was amazing. There were times when there was no ice to be seen -- you'd almost be forgiven for thinking you were in the Caribbean," he says. The hardier members of the crew even went for a quick swim one sunny, ice-free day in August.

Delgado says it really began to hit home that something was very different when they reached James Ross Straight on the north side of King William Island, just around the corner from Gjoa Haven. They had expected to be surrounded by icebergs, but none could be seen. And yet this is where the boat's namesake, the St. Roch, was almost lost in 1942 thanks to impenetrable ice.

Gjoa Haven's Mayor Aglukkaq, of course, is anything but surprised by Delgado's reports. Neither is Roger Kuptana, an outfitter and hotelier in Sachs Harbour on Banks Island, who's been going out on the land -- and on the frozen ocean -- for more almost 30 years. "It's something that most people can see," he says. "It's just not as cold as it used to be anymore." Just as the polar bears of M'Clintock Channel have abandoned their traditional hunting grounds, so Kuptana and other sealers on Banks Island are finding life difficult in a time when warm winters mean thinner ice and less of it. "It used to be that wasn't uncommon for it get down to minus 40 and stay there the whole way through. Now we have lots of mild spells." In the summer the higher water temperatures bring stormier seas. It doesn't take satellite photos and upward-looking sonar to figure it out the significance of open water, he adds: "It has to be something to do with the climate. The weather patterns are changing too much for it to be a coincidence."

Evidence is also mounting that more that the receding ice cap captures attention beyong that of Northern sealers and curious climatologists. The American ice-breaker Healy was not the only vessel to voyage through the Passage. There was the sudden, and unexpected, arrival of a Chinese research vessel one day in Tuktoyaktuk. That same summer a Russian drydock was towed through the passage. Up to now, who actually controls those waters has been something of a moot point. According to Mike Glew of the Canadian Coast Guard's icebreaker program in Sarnia, Ont., there aren't that many ships capable of tackling the Passage's treacherous and unpredictable channels. Canada has just five, and the U.S., Sweden, Finland, Norway and Russian each have a few. The traditional and official line, says Glew, is "it's not a dependable waterway."

But combine today's structurally superior hulls with a more forgiving climate, and everything changes. Officially, Canada's claim to the Northwest Passage remains unchallenged. The U.S. and Canada have agreed to disagree over who has authority. So far, all Canada has managed to extract from the U.S. is the 1988 Agreement on Arctic Cooperation, which requires the U.S. to abide by Canada's environmental regulations when in the Passage. The official line is that melting ice changes nothing. "Canada's sovereignty over internal waters would be undiminished should the extent of ice-covered waters be reduced in size," says Reynald Doiron, a spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. "Whatever may be brought about by climate change, whether ice is diminished or not, is irrelevant." Not everyone is so optimistic. When Col. Pierre LeBlanc stepped down as commander of the Canadian Forces' Northern Region last year, his uncharacteristically blunt comments found their way into media reports around the world. "The end of the Cold War has made the Arctic more open, more available for a lot more activity. These activities right now are not monitored as well as they should be," Leblanc told reporters as he retired in July. "If we don't watch what's going on in the Arctic and control it, various parties may go up there and do as they please."

Franklyn Griffiths, a professor of international politics at the University of Toronto who been studying the issue for years, puts a less alarmist spin on the issue . "We have a tendency to get excited about sovereignty and then forget about it," says Griffiths. "But I am not at all certain that this is a serious issue. It might be that the people at National Defence are more concerned. No matter what you say, when they think sovereignty is up to a challenge, they go on guard."

In the bigger picture, he suggests, is that the rest of the world is moving beyond parochial issues of national sovereignty. International agreements and multilateral treaties, such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, mean who actually claims which waters is not as big a deal as it once was. Just as trade is no longer the purview of the nation-state, so control of resources, environmental regulations and rules of behavior are increasingly governed collectively.

And as far as climate change goes, Griffiths points out that a receding polar ice pack could make travel through Russia's Northeast Passage, with no archipelago and shallow channels to complicate navigation much easier much sooner than through Canada's Northwest Passage.

Griffith is no climatologist, but the University of Victoria's Andrew Weaver is. As one of the authors of the IPCC report, his predictions carry a fair bit of weight, and even he doesn't think we should be losing too much sleep over Northwest Passage sovereignty. "I very much doubt there will be a year-round open Northwest Passage as it will still be very cold in the winter, that is, cold enough for sea ice to form, in 100 years. The problem is the ice won't be as thick, so large areas will be ice-free in the summer melt season.," he says. "I would be looking for a passage to open in the summer by Russia first and not one by Canada." Weaver has even taken a peak into the future with the help of an animated map of the Arctic Ocean as the ice caps melts. The first to free up is the Russian coast, with wide swathes free by 2020. By 2050, though, most of Canada's Arctic Archipelago is free as well.

None of this helps the polar bears of M'Clintock Channel, the big-game guides of Gjoa Haven, or the seal-hunters of Banks Island. The world is getting hotter, and as Weaver warns, even the most optimistic scenarios for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions will only forestall a few hundredth of a degree of the warming.

But as far as northern shipping goes, it's beginning to look like it will be Russia's problem, not ours.


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