Arctic conflict: dog sleds vs. icebreakers

On a sunny spring day in 1975, Lukas Kruse was watching in amazement and anger as the icebreaker ''Sigyn'' slowly made its way through the frozen waters of the Uummannaq Fiord.

Standing on a hill above his home village of Niaqornat, a hunting community of 80 Inuit (Eskimos) in northwest Greenland, the old man observed through his binoculars how the small but powerful ship, bound for a lead and zinc mine, was creating a dark track of open water in the ice, which in the winter serves as a highway system for the indispensable dog sleds.

The incident was almost symbolic of what is seen as a growing conflict of interest between the Inuit hunters of the remote and undisturbed north and the increasingly resource-hungry communities in the south.

The Inuit who won the first round of this reverse North-South dialogue tells Lukas Kruse, ''Soon I saw about 20 hunters racing toward the icebreaker, placing themselves and their dog sleds in front of it.''

With local politicians as intermediaries, a settlement was negotiated right there on the ice. Since then, no ships have been allowed to call on the mine between December and June.

But the ''Sigyn'' incident was only a modest early warning of much larger Canadian projects that are currently being planned.

In perhaps as little as four years from now, supertankers may start plowing through the seven-foot ice cover of the Northwest Passage and the Davis Strait.

The use of such giants will open up the frozen north to the development of its resources. The first step in this scheme is called the Arctic Pilot Project (APP),which will ship liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the Canadian Arctic to industrial centers in the southeast 3,000 miles away.

The $2 billion project is subject to approval by the Canadian National Energy Board and the Cabinet. The APP is only a forerunner to more ambitious projects: By the turn of the century up to 1,000 passages a year by icebreaking supertankers are predicted for the Northwest Passage.

Inuit see tanker traffic as the greatest threat ever to their subsistence culture and, in the case of the Canadian Inuits, to a fair settlement of land claims that are being negotiated with the federal government in Ottawa.

In Greenland, the parliament has unanimously expressed its opposition to the APP. A major concern is the underwater noise generated by the powerful propellers of the supertankers.

The Greenlanders refer to Danish biologist Bertel Mohl of Aarhus University, who predicts the noise from the tankers will jam the whales' communications and sonar systems over a distance of at least 65 miles, possibly leaving the Inuit without some of their most important game.

''If we compare [the noise from the tankers] with the noise levels in our industries, then all the whales in the area would have to wear ear protectors,'' Mr. Mohl says.

Other Inuit concerns include the possibility of an oil spill, which would upset for years the delicate ecology of these frigid waters.

Douglas Bowie, a vice-president of Petro Canada, the principal company of APP , stresses its pilot nature.

''We won't know the effects until we actually do it,'' he argues. ''If the APP is shown to have real negative effects, we should, of course, close down the project.''

''It seems to me that a measured approach to the development of the north could benefit the Inuit as well.''

Lukas Kruse is not convinced. ''What are we going to do if the seals and the whales disappear? '' he asks. ''Move to the stars, I guess.''

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