Maybe Christopher Columbus, Martin Frobisher, and other explorers were just half a millennium too early. Global warming may soon provide what the early sailors sought in vain: a shortcut ocean route from Europe to the fabled riches of the East.
With the polar ice cap in the Canadian Arctic melting, a possible maritime route - the Northwest Passage - is opening up. In the next couple of decades, commercial ships may start plying the Arctic route instead of going through the Panama Canal - a shortcut of more than 4,000 nautical miles.
And so the question of Canadian sovereignty is, well, if not exactly heating up, then at least defrosting. The United States and other maritime powers do not accept Canada's claim to sovereignty over the waters of the Arctic archipelago. But an oil spill in such a fragile ecosystem would be a disaster. And so it matters whose environmental regulations hold sway at the top of the world.
Christopher Sands, director of the Canada Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, worries aloud about the sort of power vacuum that could develop if the Arctic turned into a real shipping route without a universally accepted regulatory regime in place. It's a "classic transnational problem," he says, adding, "My sense is that this is a good time to step in and try to fix it."
His proposal: Despite US resistance, the international community should grant Canada special custodianship of the Arctic ecosystem, just as Australia has been granted a custodial role for the Great Barrier Reef, an ecosystem lying partly inside and partly outside Australian waters.
Reynald Doiron, a spokesman at Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, plays down the possibility of regular shipping through the Northwest Passage as a "scenario" that "has been mentioned." He concedes that other countries have reserved their rights to challenge Canadian sovereignty over the Arctic but insists, "No formal legal challenge has been put forward."
"We have agreed to disagree" on the sovereignty issue says Buck Shinkman, spokesman at the US Embassy in Ottawa.
Mr. Sands, though, sees a number of elements converging to make Northwest Passage shipping likelier: new technological advances in oil tankers, such as double hulling, and oil price rises that may make production of Alaskan oil more economically feasible. Moreover, when oil production in the North Sea winds down, European nations could import Alaskan crude through the Northwest Passage and refine it in facilities in the North Sea.
"The Panama Canal is rusting to pieces," Sands says, "and Panama doesn't have the money to fix it."
However far-fetched the Arctic shipping challenge might seem, Sands says "there's a reasonable chance this is going to happen."
Scientists, however, are less willing to make a straight-line projection from less ice to more shipping. "There's no doubt the temperature is going up" in the Arctic, says Sharon Jeffers, a forecaster with the Canadian Ice Service in Ottawa. But in the near to middle term, the same warming that melts ice also liberates chunks of super-hard "multiyear ice," as scientists call it, to flow into the would-be shipping channels, making navigators' life more interesting, to say the least. "It's so complicated," says Ms. Jeffers.
What most people agree on is that more study is needed. To help in this direction, the US Coast Guard Cutter Healy, an icebreaker and fully outfitted oceanographic vessel, is making its maiden voyage through the Northwest Passage this summer. It launched from St. John's, Newfoundland, June 2, and is currently in Baffin Bay to conduct science trials until the end of the month, according to Cmdr. George Dupree, chief of the US Coast Guard's icebreaking program. The Healy is due in Seattle Aug. 6.
It is a de facto joint US-Canadian operation. "We've bent over backward to conform to Canadian requirements," Commander Dupree says, alluding to the sovereignty issue. The personnel on board include two Canadian Coast Guard captains, Canadian Naval geographers, Inuit guides, and Canadian Ice Service officials to help navigate around the "bergy bits," "growlers," and other colorfully named impediments to Arctic water traffic.
At various times over the years, Canadian governments have made particular efforts to demonstrate their sovereignty over the north. John Amagoalik, who in recent years has become known as one of the founding fathers of the new Canadian territory of Nunavut, recalled in a recent interview in Iqaluit how he and his family got involved in one of these efforts.
In the spring of 1953, when he was just five years old, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police came calling at his family's camp in northern Quebec. " 'We want to send you to a place that's better than here,' " he recalls them saying, " 'where there are more animals to hunt, where there are jobs for you.' "
The idea was to assert sovereignty in the high Arctic by populating it, however sparsely, with Inuit. His parents said no at first, but the Mounties kept coming back. Finally, the family gave in, and along with several other families, they were relocated in Resolute, 75 degrees north, well into the Arctic Circle - a place whose native name, Qausuittug, means "where there is no daylight."
More recently, some Canadians scientists have questioned just how committed their government is to asserting northern sovereignty - which is why the Healy's cruise is so important.
In the port of Churchill, Manitoba, meanwhile, the future is now. "I grew up in Hudson Bay, in Church, and in my lifetime, the weather seems to be changing," says Alan Johnson, president of the Hudson Bay Port Company. "Environment Canada reports a 30-year warming trend, very significant increases in temperature," he adds. "It gives me a huge opportunity for marketing the Port of Churchill."
The season has already stretched from the end of October to the middle or end of November, he says. This has big consequences for farmers who save up to $20 a ton if they can ship grain over water from Churchill rather than by rail to St. the port in Lawrence.
The port was privatized in 1997, and so temperature increases aren't the only force of change at work there: The port has spent more than $25 million to upgrade facilities over the past few years and thus has a strong incentive to push the limits of the shipping season to get a better return on the investment.
"Technically, there's no reason not to ship 12 months a year," Mr. Johnson says, but using icebreaking equipment isn't always cost-effective. "We're looking at pushing the season forward and back. If global warming does it for us, that's cheaper."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society