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Arctic Warming Unlocking A Fabled Waterway

By | August 15, 2011 - 11:55 am

It appears as just a speck on the horizon, a slightly darker shape against a vista of Arctic ice. Soon enough, the ship’s bridge makes the announcement: “Polar bear, starboard.”

Crew and passengers onboard the CCGS Louis S. St.-Laurent, Canada’s largest icebreaker, head to the open deck, binoculars and cameras ready, and watch as the bear lumbers from one ice floe to another, quickly dipping into the inky blue water and effortlessly pulling himself back up again.

Often, a bear will head toward the ship and gaze up at the people gazing down at it, head tilted to one side. The massive creatures don’t demonstrate any fear, just curiosity.

That’s likely because they rarely see anything like a ship passing through the Northwest Passage, a series of waterways winding through Canada’s Arctic archipelago of 36,000 islands. It’s midsummer and the first time the coast guard icebreaker, affectionately known as the Louis, is making its way through the ice-choked waters this season.

But temperatures in the Arctic are rising faster than anywhere else in the world, making the Northwest Passage easier to navigate. As the ice melts faster, the vitally strategic waterway is expected to open up for longer periods of time — an attractive notion for shipping companies hoping to shorten trade routes and gain easier access to economic powerhouses such as China and India, as well as for nations within the Arctic Circle jockeying for vast, untapped natural resources.

‘Everything Is Going To Change’

For hundreds of years, the Northwest Passage has been prized as a potential transit route across the polar region, linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and greatly reducing transit times for ships that would have relied on the long, southern route through the Panama Canal. In the past, it proved to be a dangerous and difficult waterway, and the chilly Arctic waters hold the wrecks of earlier attempts to navigate the passage.

Andrew McNeill, captain of the Louis, says it’s not nearly as difficult as it was when he first started sailing in Arctic waters some 30 years ago.

“My first season here was, it was 36 hours of constant ramming of ice to get through this area. … There’s been times when the ship has had to reschedule events because of delays getting through the passage,” he recalls.

As the Louis makes its way through the waterway, it slices easily through the polar ice sheet. It’s mesmerizing: Enormous blocks of shimmering ice shoot up, twist onto their sides and bob along in the clear water, regrouping in the ship’s wake.

Eddy Carmack, a leading oceanographer with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, has carefully charted the changes in the Arctic since he first visited in 1969. He is part of a diverse group of business, science and government leaders who are traveling aboard the Louis, brainstorming about the Arctic and its future. The ship is wending its way from Newfoundland in Canada’s northeast, with stops in Resolute and Cambridge Bay, all the way, ultimately, to the Beaufort Sea off the country’s northwest coast.

Carmack says the ice on this voyage looks the same as earlier trips he’s made on the Northwest Passage, but it has a different feel.

“I would say what we’re experiencing now is softer ice, it’s not as formidable, it’s yielding to the pressure of the ship, it’s breaking easily. And that’s because the ice itself is warmer,” he says.

Rising air and water temperatures in the Arctic mean there is less ice each year, and for longer periods of time. Steve MacLean, president of the Canadian Space Agency, says that trend is expected to continue throughout the Northwest Passage.

“It’s always opened up for the last 15 years for about six weeks in the summer. Now it is expected that period will extend. And because it’s going to extend, everything is going to change,” MacLean says.

Historically, that season has generally spanned late July into early September — and sometimes as late as October.

These longer periods of ice-free waters will likely mean more vessels trying to navigate the narrow straits and channels of the Northwest Passage, including commercial shippers looking for a shortened trade route. Yet only about 10 percent of the Northwest Passage is charted.

Competing Claims In The Region

As the waterway opens up, so, too, does the issue of who controls it. The U.S. and other nations see it as an international waterway that just happens to pass through Canada’s Arctic region. Under that premise, Canada would not have the right to deny passage to foreign ships.

But Canada calls the Northwest Passage an internal waterway, and maintains it has the right to regulate and protect the passage. Leona Aglukkaq, Canada’s minister of health, is from Gjoa Haven, a tiny town along the Northwest Passage. She says Canada’s sovereignty over its land and its waters in the Arctic is longstanding and well-established.

“Our position is that these waters are Canadian, subject to full Canadian regulation and control. And [foreign vessels] only enter Canadian internal waters with the consent of Canada. That’s our position; that remains our position,” Aglukkaq says.

Last year, Canada released a new northern strategy that emphasized how it would bolster its sovereignty claims. That includes increasing scientific and environmental research of the region, and promoting exploration, along with economic development and governance of the indigenous communities.

Canada is beefing up military operations in the Arctic as well, and is conducting a five-year, $100 million study of the region’s natural resources — oil, gas and minerals. It’s believed that more than 20 percent of the world’s oil and gas reserves are hidden in the Arctic.

David Boerner, a director general of the Canadian Geological Survey, says he believes those figures are generally “in the right ballpark.” But he says they’re often underestimated because geologists aren’t able to conduct enough detailed work to establish the full extent of the resources.

Canada has also been mapping the Arctic seabed to determine how far its land mass, or continental shelf, extends past its visible coastline. This is critical to proving its right to resources under the water. Canada has until 2013 to present its case to the United Nations. The U.S., Russia and others are doing the same.

Warwick Vincent, director of the Center for Northern Studies at Laval University in Quebec City, says there’s a need to quickly put international border and sovereignty agreements into place because development of the region is already taking place. And, he says, it’s accelerating.

“Right at this moment, the Arctic is experiencing unprecedented transformation as a result of not only climate but as a result of economic development. So we need those regulations in place, rapidly,” Vincent says.

Challenges Remain In Inhospitable Terrain

Even if all of these claims are settled, the Arctic is still an extremely difficult place to operate, says Martin Bergmann, director of Natural Resources Canada’s Polar Continental Shelf Program, a key logistical facility for research in the Arctic.

“The Arctic in Canada is basically the size of Europe, has maybe 30 kilometers of roads, no trains, very few airports,” Bergmann says, adding that about 30 communities have the capability to land small aircraft on gravel.

Bergmann says sealift — the main form of bringing heavy cargo and larger equipment to the region — only happens “once a year when a ship visits the Arctic, just like Christmas comes once a year.”

But the land and the weather are inhospitable, and the waters will stay frozen for much of the year for decades to come. And that, geophysicist Boerner says, makes it extremely expensive to do any kind of work in the area. Given all that, he says, it’s unlikely there will be a mad rush to the Arctic by oil and gas companies anytime soon.

“You don’t really know what’s there until you’ve tried to extract it or drill it. … It’s also not sort of who gets there first. There are well-established regulatory regimes for giving out land, and giving the rights to explore and … a whole bunch of environmental checks and controls and balances,” he says.

Given the warming trend, development is inevitable in the Arctic. Yet despite the changes, McNeill, captain of the Louis, says he still feels the magic, and mystique, as he journeys through this pristine, mostly unexplored area.

“It’s an untouched area; very few people come through here still,” McNeill says. “You feel very humbled and fortunate to experience that, and you can relate to the hardships that those early explorers and traders had to deal with back then.”

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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