Northwest Passage heating up

Sun Journal

Access: Global warming renews an old dispute about whether the passage is international waters, or the property of Canada.

May 10, 2000|By Colin Nickerson | Colin Nickerson,Boston Globe

CAMBRIDGE BAY, Nunavut Territory - The ice packs that block navigation across the top of the world are thinning as Earth's climate warms, raising the likelihood that commercial shipping and military vessels will soon routinely ply these long-frozen seaways.

The rapid retreat of the ice is also opening the way to direct challenges to Canada's control over the waters of its vast northern realms - above all, its claim to the legendary Northwest Passage.

The dramatic changes in one of the world's most vulnerable environmental zones and critical strategic arenas are making reality of the ancient dream of an east-west sea lane that would shave thousands of miles from the ocean routes between the markets of Asia and those of Europe and eastern North America. The result could be the biggest change in global shipping patterns since the Panama Canal was completed in 1914.

Disagreements over the right to transit the northern channels have for decades been a source of usually low-key but occasionally bitter diplomatic sparring between the United States and Canada. It was a debate over an abstraction, since the channels were so clogged by pack ice even during summer months as to make passage impossible for all but mighty icebreakers and specially designed research vessels.

But soon Canada may find itself pitted against not only its powerful southern neighbor but also seagoing nations around the world.

The commander of Canadian forces in the far north is prepared to use firepower to enforce national claims.

"National security, the safety of native coastal communities, and the protection of an extremely vulnerable ecology are at stake," says Col. Pierre Leblanc, commander of Canada's northern military zone, 1.5 million square miles of frozen barrens. "When it comes to these, Canada can be a very tough country. We will defend our interests and our honor, with force if necessary."

Tough talk - but Canada has only a token military presence in the far north: 200 soldiers, sailors, and aviators belonging to the regular military, plus 1,500 Indians and Inuits belonging to irregular Ranger units.

Already, there are signs that major sea powers may be quietly probing the seas of the Canadian Arctic. Inuit fishermen reported several submarine sightings last August. Patrol planes scrambled, but were unable to identify the intruders.

The thinning arctic ice reflects a planetwide warming trend. Doomsday scenarios aside, the sea change is being watched closely by seagoing powers, especially the United States, as well as by hard-headed international shipping executives from Tokyo to Rotterdam.

"The waters are opening, this is not science fiction," says Andre Maillet, head of Arctic icebreaking operations for the Canadian coast guard. "Whether it's a few years away or a couple of decades, the passage is going to become a vital commercial channel. The shipping companies already have their eye on the route, and they are not going to wait."

Indeed, in a bit of nautical history-making that attracted almost no notice, a Russian ocean tug, the Irbis, last fall hauled a huge floating dry dock through the icy labyrinth, traveling from Russia's far eastern Kamchatka Peninsula to Freeport, Bahamas - the first industrial transit of the Northwest Passage by a non-Canadian vessel.

The name Northwest Passage refers to several possible routes through the maze of sounds, gulfs, channels and straits that transect an almost incomprehensibly vast and barely populated region. Canada says it is an internal waterway, and that Ottawa alone has the authority to regulate shipping and, above all, to set the environmental rules for the zone.

Canada's primary fear is the environmental havoc that would be caused by a ruptured oil tanker or the wreck of an ordinary container ship. The few creatures that survive in the frozen barrens are perhaps more susceptible to pollution than in any other part of the world because the food chain is so thin.

But Canada worries, too, about whether it can enforce territorial claims to its empire of ice-capped islands. The country is proving rich in oil, gas, diamonds, gold and other mineral wealth.

Many seafaring powers, most stridently the United States, claim that the channels threading through the Canadian arctic form an international waterway and must be freely navigable to all commercial ships and naval fleets.

"It's our firm position that Canada has no more right to restrict the Northwest Passage than Malaysia has to restrict the Strait of Malacca," says a senior official in Washington, referring to the heavily trafficked sea lane between the Indian and Pacific oceans. "These are world waters."

To make its point, the United States has twice in recent decades enraged Canada by sending ships through the ice without permission - the experimental heavy-hulled oil tanker Manhattan in 1969 and the icebreaker Polar Sea in 1985.

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