Northwest Passage: Arctic Dream

A Canadian sea link between Asia and Europe depends on global--and political--warming.

Riding a Ski-Doo in -30¡C weather sounds like a surefire way to become a human Popsicle. But Melanie Howell claims the experience can be comfortable, even enjoyable. The trick, says the 31-year-old Iqaluit resident, isn't just what you put on your body–although she does rave about caribou-skin clothing–but what you put in it. “If you're eating traditional foods, like seal meat,” she says, “you're going to be a lot warmer.” Howell says she often picks up these kinds of tips in her role as a member of the Canadian Rangers, military reserves in sparsely populated coastal or isolated regions of the country. Ranger Howell says her duties are part-time and include at least one two-week-long operation per year. She could soon become a lot busier.

Revitalizing the Rangers is one part of the Conservative government's $5.3-billion plan to defend Canada's Arctic sovereignty. Candidate Stephen Harper first announced the strategy last December and, since he publicly mentioned the initiative again after being elected prime minister in January, he may buck a political trend and follow through on this campaign promise. The budget will also fund other expenses such as a system to monitor the movements of submarines and other vessels in the Far North, three naval ships with ice-breaking capabilities and a deepwater port in the Iqaluit region.

Many of these efforts will go toward establishing control of the famed Northwest Passage. The stakes appear high. Many believe the waterway could become a major commercial shipping route between Asia and Europe, because it's up to a third shorter in distance than current paths through the Panama and Suez canals. Combine that with the whopping annual revenues those canals pulled in last year ($1.4 billion and $4 billion, respectively) and it's easy to see titanic economic opportunities. Still, many factors need to fall into place before Canada's hope for the Northwest Passage becomes a reality–and the Russians just might dash our dream.

The Northwest Passage is closely linked to global warming. That topic gained prominence in 2004 with the release of The Day After Tomorrow, a disaster flick that underwhelmed audiences around the world. That same year, a lower-key release also offered arguments against greenhouse gases. And unlike the alarmist film starring Jake Gyllenhaal, it was based on hard science. The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment report revealed that the global temperature is rising, the burning of fossil fuels is likely to blame, and the average temperature in the Arctic is rising at nearly twice the rate as the rest of the world. (The more pronounced greenhouse effect in the Arctic comes from a vicious circle: warmer temperatures cause snow and ice to melt, exposing land and ocean surfaces that absorb more solar radiation than snow or ice, which in turn causes the temperature in the area to rise.) Not surprisingly, the paper also showed that the average amount of Arctic sea ice during the summer has decreased 15% to 20% over the past 30 years. Perhaps more ominous, the international team of scientists behind the report predicted the Arctic will have no sea ice in the summer period by late this century, with dire consequences for polar bears, certain seals and people who depend on those animals for food.

For the Northwest Passage to become a regular shipping route, more global warming needs to happen. After all, the vast amount of ice there has to decrease before the route becomes practical for most commercial vessels, says Roger De Abreu, a science project manager at the Canadian Ice Service, a branch of the Meteorological Service of Canada.

For starters, De Abreu says the waterway's seasonal ice typically doesn't begin to melt until June and starts to refreeze again by the end of September. That makes for a short shipping season, says Capt. Ivan Lantz, the director of marine operations for the Shipping Federation of Canada, who points out his peers grumble that the St. Lawrence Seaway is only open nine months of the year.

Meanwhile, the level of ice in the Northwest Passage currently changes dramatically from year to year, says De Abreu. “That variability isn't a good thing for shippers,” he explains. “They want consistency, so they can plan.” As well, the passage is dotted with so-called multi-year ice or old ice, which doesn't melt during the summer months and instead gets thicker and harder each year. “Hitting multi-year ice is like hitting granite,” says Lantz. The risk of such a hazard needs to be relatively low in the Northwest Passage, he says, before ships will travel through it. That said, by the last half of the century, the anticipated increase in global warming should make these drawbacks less of a problem, says De Abreu.

If the waterway becomes a regular shipping route, Canada will want, among other things, to cash in on the traffic. But before the country can do that, it will need to win the international debate over the status of the Northwest Passage. “We say it's Canadian internal waters,” says Rob Huebert, a political science professor at the University of Calgary and associate director for the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies. “The American and European position is that it's a strait used for international navigation–even if [U.S. ambassador to Canada David] Wilkins gets it totally wrong.”

The distinction makes a whale of a difference. If the passage is deemed Canadian, we have the right to charge ships a transit fee, says international lawyer Michael Byers, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia. We could also specify what kinds of vessels can enter the route, as well as regulate the activities of those ships. For example, Byers says, perhaps only double- rather than single-hulled oil tankers will be permitted in the passage for safety reasons. And maybe no ships will be allowed to dump their ballasts into the fragile Arctic environment, he adds. On the other hand, Byers says that if the passage is deemed international, there would be relatively few restrictions on ships passing through. “We don't want a Wild West in Canada's North,” he says.

So how strong is our country's position? Canada's Inuit have travelled and lived on the ice of the Northwest Passage for thousands of years. That fact adds to our claim, says Byers. The lawyer also sees two problems with the American and European position. Since the passage is covered in ice for most of the year, he says, it is unlike other waterways considered to be international, like the Strait of Gibraltar. Second, he points out that a condition for an international strait is that it's used for international shipping. Byers says that although the Americans have twice challenged Canada's position with voyages through the Northwest Passage–the SS Manhattan oil tanker, in 1969, and the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea, in 1985–international shipping has yet to occur in the route. But those last two points are increasingly on thin ice. “It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out climate change will challenge those arguments,” says Byers, emphasizing the need for quick resolution.

Byers says Canada may ultimately get its way on the Northwest Passage, if we allay Washington's concerns over the use of the route for terrorism, international crime or illegal immigration. After all, he says, Canadian laws are much stronger than international ones.

In the meantime, Byers warns that the chances of a nonconsensual commercial trip through the Northwest Passage, which would undermine Canada's position, increases each year. He points out the offender may not even be an official U.S. vessel but perhaps a dubious shipping company trying to save a buck. To guard against that, Byers recommends changing our Arctic ship registration system from a voluntary process to a mandatory one. He also suggests moving some of the Canadian Forces' helicopters, along with a handful of soldiers, to Resolute Bay. That way, he explains, “we could drop some Canadian commandos on the deck of a ship which ignored our request to stop.”

Gaining the right to charge vessels a fee for travelling through the Northwest Passage is one thing; getting shipping companies to foot the bill is another. Emmanuel Guy, a researcher in the maritime resource management program at the University of Quebec, has crunched some numbers on the financial appeal of the Northwest Passage as a shorter route between Asia and Europe. His figures suggest floating ice and a transit fee could put a serious dent in the cost savings of the shortcut.

First, Guy looked at two Shanghai-Rotterdam routes, one through the Northwest Passage and the other through the Suez Canal. (The latter is currently the shortest path in use between those two busy port cities, Guy says.) He assumed a charter cost of US$30,000 per day, a travelling speed of 22 knots and fuel costs of US$170 per ton for both scenarios. Guy included transit fees for the Suez Canal route but no such expenses for the Northwest Passage. Not surprisingly, given its shorter distance and free access, the northern passage route was US$590,000 cheaper.

Then, Guy analysed a Shanghai-Rotterdam route through the Northwest Passage, but accounted for floating ice in the waterway and a transit fee similar to the one proposed by the Russians for their Northern Sea Route, which also links Asia and Europe. Guy bumped up the charter cost to US$90,000 per day. His rationale for the premium is that ice conditions require more expensive ships and that their rarity also causes them to command a higher price. As support, he cites recent charter costs for vessels that service the ice-filled waters off the northern coast of Russia in winter, which are up to three times more than the costs during other parts of the year. Guy also decreased the average speed of the ship to six knots through the northern passage because of the danger of floating ice. When compared to the previous Suez Canal cost, this Northwest Passage scenario costs US$1,191,000 more.

Guy points out he didn't include in his analysis the cost that shipping companies would likely incur from operating in both the seasonal Northwest Passage and another route for the remainder of the year. He says that expense alone could wipe out any cost savings from the Canadian shortcut for some shipping companies. But the opening of Russia's Northern Sea Route could truly sink the commercial potential for the Northwest Passage. Guy points out the Russian waterway offers a path between Asia and Europe similar in distance to Canada's Arctic route. What's more, he says scientists expect the ice conditions to clear up for shipping in the Northern Sea Route sooner than in the Northwest Passage. On top of that, says De Abreu of the Canadian Ice Service, Russia has paid much more attention to the Northern Sea Route–in terms of understanding the science, looking at the infrastructure needs and selling it as a shipping route–than Canada has for its Arctic route.

All told, the Northwest Passage seems to require nearly all the stars to be aligned for it to become a commercial success. Put another way, many scenarios could put Canada's hope for the legendary waterway permanently on ice.