Archive for the ‘Arctic Issues’ Category

The Arctic Ocean and the Rule of Law

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

On several occasions recently Canada has scrambled some jets to make sure Russian bombers do not penetrate its airspace in the Arctic. This sounds ominous. What gives?

It is all about the central international seas of the Arctic Ocean, about the size of the Mediterranean. With the summer melting of the Arctic ice, the matter of ownership of the extensive oil, gas and minerals of the seabed there is of increasing interest. Is it really an international region, or do coastal Arctic nations have legitimate claims to parts of it, beyond the current 200 miles of their EEZs? The stakes are high.

The Lomonosov Ridge extends underwater between the continental shelves of Canada and Russia (

The question itself is simple enough. The Lomonosov Ridge extends from the Siberian coast of Russia, more or less through the North Pole, to the coast of Canada and Greenland. If the Ridge is an extension of the Russian continental shelf, then Russia can claim a greater portion of the Arctic Ocean as part of its EEZ. If the Ridge is an extension of the Canadian shelf, then Canada can do the same. On the other hand, if the Ridge isn’t attached to either continent, then it is an oceanic ridge, and the Canadian and Russian claims won’t hold up.

In 2001, Russia submitted its claim to the Lomonosov Ridge to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, and was told to resubmit when they had some better evidence. Now Russia has announced it will submit a new claim by 2013.

Russia's aggressive claim to a large part of the Arctic Ocean, beyond the 200 mile limits of its EEZ (

For the past several summers, Russia has sent its nuclear powered research vessel, the Akademik Fyodorov, into the Arctic to examine and map the Ridge in detail. Last summer it carried about 70 researchers, along with its small submarine, and spent almost three months at work. Evidence is certainly accumulating.

The Russian research vessel Akademik Fyordorov in the Arctic in 2010 (

Meanwhile, Canada intends to submit a claim to the UN at about the same time, hoping to convince the same Commission that the Lomonosov Ridge is really an extension of Canada’s Ellesmere Island.

Not surprisingly, things are heating up politically. Russia plans to send a couple of brigades into the region. Canada’s Prime Minister Harper, who seems to have a special interest in the Arctic, has said “Canada is an Arctic power, and will continue to exercise our sovereignty”. NATO is showing interest, expecting warships will come from different sources once the ice melts sufficiently in summer, and that NATO ought to be there to defuse tensions.

A Russian sub planted a flag on the seabed at the North Pole in 2007, but planting a US flag on the moon in 1969 did not make the moon American (

Canada and Russia do in fact agree on one thing: NATO has no reason to be in the Arctic. Since, almost alone in the world, the US still hasn’t ratified the UN Law of the Sea, it is uncertain what role, if any, it can have in the upcoming sovereignty decisions – perhaps NATO is its proxy.

Russia emphasizes it is adhering to the rule of law. Last September, Norway and Russia resolved their dispute over 176,000 km2 of Arctic Ocean that straddles their EEZs, agreeing to joint development of straddling deposits of oil and natural gas.

Anton Vasilev, Russian ambassador at large for the Arctic, referring to its recent agreement with Norway as a useful precedent, said “All problems will be resolved the same way. No blood, no conflict. Professionals quietly at work on the basis of international law. Full stop. And we shall do it.”

Russia is acting, and sounding, relatively rational. It is time for Canada – and its Prime Minister – to do the same.

Prime Minister Harper at work protecting Canadian Arctic sovereignty (

And yet we once had a dream that the development of the Arctic would be different, that we had learned so much about how not to develop marine ecosystems that the Arctic would be treated as the sanctuary it deserves to be, that its obvious fragility would protect it from ‘business-as-usual’ development.

We can now only hope that cooperation and the Rule of Law truly are sufficient to prevent the Arctic Ocean going the route of pretty well every other piece of the world’s seas.

There still remains the opportunity to do better this time, and not continue to be forced to try to make the best of bad times.

New Migrations

Tuesday, July 12th, 2011

The Northwest Passage has opened for more than just the occasional ship.

A year ago a grey whale turned up on the Israeli coast in the Mediterranean. There are about 20,000 grey whale migrating up and down the Pacific coast of North America, another 200 survive along the western edge of the Pacific, but since the 1700s none have been seen in the Atlantic – efficiently hunted there to extinction.

But now there is one in the Atlantic again.

The fluke of the grey whale that visited Israel in 2010 (

It probably crossed the Arctic three summers ago following the Northwest Passage, and then migrated south in the Atlantic to warmer water. Considering the attention this one whale received, it is highly unlikely that it is from some unknown population of grey whales that somehow survived in the Atlantic unseen for the past two or three hundred years. Grey whales hug the coast, feed on the bottom mud, and spend their winter in southerly warmer water: they are too hard to miss.

And now more species have arrived, along the same route.

A planktonic diatom characteristic of the North Pacific (Neodenticulata seminae) arrived in the Sea of Labrador in 1999, the St.Lawrence Estuary in 2001, and now has reached as far as Long Island. Diatoms leave their skeletons behind when they die, each with a species-specific architecture, and this diatom has not been seen in the North Atlantic for 800,000 years.

The diatom Neodenticulata recolonizes the North Atlantic

The Northwest Passage was open in 1998, then again in 2007. This summer, ice has melted at about the same rate it did in 2007, so another open passage is likely – open not just for adventurous humans, but also for migrating and current driven marine life.

Extent of Arctic ice melt, July 6, 2011 (red lines indicate median extent of ice for this date, 1977-2000). (

The Arctic ice is melting fast enough this summer for the NW Passage to open once again (

Though the grey whale was last seen near Spain 23 days after its appearance near Israel, it hasn’t been sighted since, and may have died. But what’s ahead? Perhaps grey whales will recolonize the Atlantic – that would be exciting. More plankton species are certainly making the trip. So some of the largest and some of the smallest organisms have crossed the Arctic: more regular mixing of Pacific and Atlantic fauna and flora is now inevitable.

The Northwest Passage will soon be open every summer, and for ever longer periods. As temperatures and currents in the North Pacific and North Atlantic also continue to change, the adjustments to marine ecosystems will be significant, and fascinating to watch.

More change is upon us. Part of the new emerging world as the climate warms.

Challenges for the Arctic Council

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

In the Arctic, the warming continues, despite the harsh winter of 2011 in much of North America: the extent of winter ice was less than the recent average once again, and the Great Melt continues. So what else is happening?

Arctic ice limits, winter 2011. The orange line represents the average extent of winter ice, 1977-2000. (

Time series of the extent of Arctic ice in 2011, compared with recent years. (

The Arctic Council meets this week at Nuuk, in Greenland, and an 8-nation treaty on search-and-rescue jurisdiction is going to be signed. This is, on one hand, an excellent step forward, as the nations agree who will have responsibility, and where, across the Arctic Ocean. The Globe and Mail has published a draft map of where the international boundaries will lie. Foreign Ministers from all but Canada will be there, including Hillary Clinton. Canada just lost its Foreign Minister in an election, and the health Minister Leona Aglukkaq will represent Canada: a nice little irony, as otherwise no aboriginal voice will be anywhere near the meeting.

A draft map of the international boundaries of jurisdiction for search-and-rescue responsibilities by nations sharing the Arctic Ocean (

On the other hand, almost all the contentious issues remain.

Who has rights to the extensive oil and gas everyone believes lie waiting to be tapped? All the participants signing the current treaty agree the boundaries they have drawn for search-and-rescue jurisdiction have little relationship with boundaries related to exploration and exploitation of gas and oil fields.

Oil companies, including Shell and Cairns, are extend their drilling in the Arctic, and you would think the memories of the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, not to mention the lessons learned, would ensure the best safety measures would be in place. They aren’t. The risks appear to be even greater. There will be spills in the Arctic Ocean, the pollution could be devastating, and there is little serious preparation in the works.

Who owns the shipping lanes? Does Canada own most of the Northwest Passage, and Russia almost all of the Northeast Passage? Canada and Russia assume so, but probably no one else does. China, South Korea and Japan all want a voice in such decisions, and are clamouring for at least observer status at Arctic Council meetings.

Fishing rights are barely on the table, yet the Arctic marine ecosystem is going to shift with the warming and the loss of ice. The moratorium of federal fishing in the US sector is helpful, and Canada appears to be about to do the same for the Beaufort Sea, but no international agreements yet exist.

The US has established a moratorium of ishing in Alaskan Arctic waters. (

The status of the US voice in all of this also remains ambiguous, for the US still has not ratified the UN Law of the Sea even though almost every other nation in the world has done so. Even the US military now wants that treaty ratified by the US, but fear of right wing criticism of anything related to the UN and to international treaties continues to prevent congressional action.

And what of the impact of the melting of the permafrost, the rising sea, and the other radical changes associated with the warming climate? What of the impending economic development of the Arctic? What of the Inuit communities ringing the Arctic? The absence of aboriginal representation raises familiar and disturbing questions.

Inuit cultures will soon be lost. Does it matter? (

So a little celebration could be called for – treaties like this are rare. But it is a very small step, and time is short.

Warm Arctic, Cold Continents

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

For the first time ever, the annual New Year’s day snowmobile parade at Iqaluit had to be cancelled this year: record high temperatures, rain, and lack of suitable ice made it impossible.

Iqaluit, capital of Nunavut, is targeted for considerable growth as the Arctic melts, and the Northwest Passage opens up.

Iqaluit is the capital of Nunavut, in southern Baffin Island on Frobisher Bay, a little south of the Arctic Circle. This week, at the end of January, the weather there is as frigid as it should be this time of year – high temperatures around -25 degrees Centigrade, lows around -40. But until a couple of weeks ago, winter still hadn’t started. Temperatures were 10-20 degrees above normal, rain fell instead of snow, and Frobisher Bay had yet to freeze.

Frobisher Bay in early January should be covered by thick ice

Despite the winter weather that has clobbered those of us living in the mid latitudes south of the Arctic, the Arctic continues to get warmer, much more rapidly than the models predicted even a few years ago.

Temperatures over North America have changed. This year, as of Jan 9, they are much below normal (blues) in the mid latitudes, and much warmer than usual in the polar region (browns) (

How does this affect our atmosphere? In the past, the jet stream encircled the cold polar air mass, preventing it from leaking south to the mid latitudes that it has molested this winter, as it did last winter. The jet stream is usually kept in place by the pressure differences between the cold polar air mass and the relatively warmer air of the mid latitudes.

The way it oughta be: the jet stream keeps the cold air in Canada (

But with a warmer air mass over the pole, the pressure differences are not as great, and the jet stream has weakened. Huge tongues of cold air have leaked south, and at times unexpectedly warm air has seeped into the Arctic. Climatologists have labelled this the Warm Arctic-Cold Continent condition.

The Arctic Oscillation isn't new, but the polar air mass is likely to remain warm indefinitely (

We should have known this was going to get complicated. Disruption of global weather patterns as the Arctic continues to warm of course was expected, but that disruption may be more violent and variable than anyone conceived. How can we have some of the hottest and fire infested months in the same year a winter like this one occurs?

It’s true that it remains difficult to be certain about cause and effect relationships between global warming and all the severe climate changes we are experiencing. But what we can be certain of is that the Arctic is warming rapidly, and that atmospheric and oceanic circulation will be disrupted as a result.

How great will that disruption become? Of course we don’t know. However, we do know that the human and economic costs of coping with severe weather events will continue to increase. Our energy will go increasingly into never ending efforts to recover from droughts, fires, floods, snow storms, ice storms, monsoons and hurricanes.

In hopes of mitigating those costs, anything that reduces the magnitude of climate warming is worth considering. Despite the other issues plaguing us all, the need for action on climate change is greater than ever. Meanwhile, in his conciliatory State of the Union speech a few days ago, President Obama did not once mention climate change.

We have a growing sense of what’s ahead. Good luck to us.

Arctic Melt 2010

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

The planet just had its warmest January through July period on record – and this despite the cooling effects of La Nina in the Pacific, not to mention the snow blizzard in Washington, D.C. last winter.

The Arctic had an extraordinarily warm spring, with temperatures as much as 6 degrees C above average, the warmest on record (adequate temperature records go back to 1948). The ice cover is now the second lowest it has been since ice records began to be kept in 1979. Though the northern Northwast Passage is not completely open, there is still time, for a month of melting still lies ahead in the lower Arctic.

Ice cover in the Arctic at the end of July 2010. The northern Northwest Passage is almost completely free of ice. (

This is the 14th consecutive year of above average Arctic ice melt. Each year the ice starts to melt a little earlier, and then the increased extent of open water absorbs more heat instead of reflecting it back the way ice does. So the melt season then lasts a little longer. The melt season has extended an average of 6.4 days per decade over the past three decades: 20 days longer in just 28 years.

All this spurs on Canadian efforts to develop the Arctic as the irresistible Northwest Passage gets ever closer. This week, Canadian Prime Minister Harper, on his annual summer trip into the Arctic, announced the development of the airport at Churchill in northern Manitoba, on the west coast of Hudson’s Bay – anticipating that it will become the airport hub to serve Canada’s north.

Prime Minister Harper in Churchill to announce the expansion of the airport there (

Then Harper announced that Cambridge Bay in Nunavut will become the home of the planned Canadian High Arctic Research Station – and Cambridge Bay is (perhaps you guessed it) the major community nearest to the entry to the Northwest Passage.

Cambridge Bay in Nunavut, a community of about 10,000 that is now likely to grow considerably.(

And so the drumbeat continues. The Arctic ice cover continues to melt at unexpected rates each summer, changing Arctic ecosystems in the process, with predicted but uncertain impact on global climate and on ocean currents. And the impending opening of the Northwest Passage forces coastal Arctic countries to press their sovereignty concerns with far greater energy and effectiveness than they do in trying to mitigate the catastrophic impacts of global warming.

What is Canada doing to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate global warming? Nothing. The Government will not initiate any stricter regulations than those that exist in the US, and the current US Congress will initiate nothing.

Now, sovereignty issues, and economic issues concerning who owns the Northwest Passage – that’s quite different. All the players are taking initiatives.

Are we really so short sighted? Not for a second.

But our leaders are.

Prime Minister Harper (grey pants) standing on an iceberg during his Arctic tour annonces that: We must continue to exercise our sovereignty while strengthening the safety and security of Canadians living in our High Arctic (Canadain Press)

Carving up the Arctic

Sunday, June 6th, 2010

Who owns the Arctic?

Until the ice began to melt, this question did not grip us. Now, with the irresistible shipping, economic, and resource opportunities that are emerging with the prospect of a melted Arctic Ocean, everything has changed. And it looks like ‘Business as Usual‘, the one scanario of the near future that is most short-sighted.

The Arctic Ocean, semi-enclosed, unexploited, and about to change very rapidly. (

The five countries who have Arctic coastline – Russia, Canada, Denmark, USA and Norway – have sent in whatever they can to stake their claims, including navy ships, subs, and ice bound military maneuvers. Most of the boundaries stretching out to 200 miles from the coastlines have now been established, but critical issues remain.

The serious players in the game of 'Who Owns the Arctic' (

Of great concern, Russia, Canada and Denmark are all claiming parts of the remaining international High Seas centered over the North Pole. Making their claims possible is the Lomonosov Ridge. It extends from the continental shelf of Russia, across the North Pole, to the edge of the continental shelf of Canada and Denmark’s Greenland. All three countries claim this should extend their Exclusive Economic Zones far beyond the 200 mile limit, even as far as the North Pole. Like other irresolvable territorial disputes, this will eventually be settled by the International Court of Justice at The Hague, according to the principles of the UN Law of the Sea.

Russia believes it deserves most of the Arctic Ocean since it has populated and developed its Arctic coastline more than the other players have. (

Meanwhile the other three countries of the Arctic Council – Iceland, Sweden, Finland – demand to be included in discussions about ownership and development. So do the Inuit. And just in case we think the Arctic nations will somehow work this out by themselves, other countries are preparing to be involved. South Korea is building ice breakers. China is no doubt preparing as well.

At issue are rights to fisheries, whose future is unknown, and rights to oil and gas deposits that are expected to be immense. The stakes are high. Extensive drilling in the Arctic is a certainty. The current catastrophic oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico should delay some of the planned exploration and drilling, and regulations are likely to be improved and even enforced. But the oil and gas will be exploited.

At the same time, international shipping will use the Northwest Passage. Existing seaports will grow, and new ones will be established. A whole new piece of the planet will be opened up to what we do best – exploitation and development.

Waiting to see what's going to happen. (

Still, there is another route we can follow, an alternative to uncontrolled and competitive growth and exploitation. Leaving the Arctic alone and untouched, ‘owned’ by no nation, is of course impossible, a dream of the impractical environmental idealist. Yet controlled, slow, careful, cooperative and responsible development and exploitation is possible. It need not be ‘Business as usual’.

And what an opportunity this is. Learning from the mountain of mistakes we have made over the past hundred years, we can treat the Arctic the way we should have treated the rest of the planet. We haven’t yet wrecked the place. We’re smart enough to know how to do it right.

Surely it isn’t too late. Yet.

Northwest Passage

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

The Northwest Passage, the dream of centuries, lying mostly within the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, has opened enough in recent summers for a few ships to drive through it. For a price, tourists can now even make the trip. Within a few decades, it will be open all year.

The Northwest Passage

The stakes are high – involving economic, environmental, social, and political concerns, everything is going to be in play. Once it opens year round, it will shorten the trip between Europe and Asia by 2150 nautical miles – an immense savings, and an immense opportunity for coastal development. Whether or not we want to see such development in the Arctic is no longer a relevant question: it is going to happen.

The Northwest Passage lies among the islands of the Canadian Arctic archipelago

As a start, both Canada and the US are planning deep-water ports at their respective ends of the sea route. Canada has begun to develop a deep water naval facility at Nanisivik, an abandoned lead and zinc mining town at the eastern entrance to the Passage near the northern tip of Baffin Island in Nunavut on the south side of Lancaster Sound.

Canada's Arctic deep-water water is at Nanisivik.

There is of course the small question of who owns the Northwest Passage.

Canada argues that since the Northwest Passage lies clearly within its 200 mile waters, it belongs to Canada. Everyone else, led by the US and Russia, argues that the Passage should be considered International Straits, not owned by any single country. Both sides refer to the articles of the UN Law of the Sea, even though the US, almost alone in the world, has still to ratify the Law.

Lancaster Sound: Canadian waters or International Strait?

Lancaster Sound is the actual eastern entrance to the Northwest Passage, and it is the key to the conflict. How strong is Canada’s case? Permanent human occupation is certainly necessary. To make the case even stronger, Canada may designate Lancaster Sound a National Marine Conservation Area, and is pushing as well for it to be recognized as a World Heritage Site. Considering its extraordinary beauty, the high productivity of its waters and the great numbers of marine mammals and seabirds that migrate to it each summer, it is surely worth conserving and protecting from the dangers of development and resource exploration.

Lancaster Sound, beautiful, productive - and fragile

And yet. International opposition to Canadian ownership of the Passage is great, and Canada’s case may not be strong enough. Amazingly, Canada also appears to be undermining its own case as it plans on seismic testing in Lancaster Sound later this summer in efforts to find more oil and gas resources. Contradicting itself once again, you might wonder if anyone is actually in charge.

No matter who owns it, Lancaster Sound will still be the eastern entrance to the Northwest Passage, and all the coming commercial, naval and tourist traffic will pass through it. It is going to need all the protection it can get.

Who can we trust most? Who can we trust at all?

Narwhals resolving a confict in Lancaster Sound

Melting Ice

Saturday, March 6th, 2010

A new iceberg has been calved from the Antarctic continental ice sheet. It’s a tongue of the Mertz Glacier, not too far from the West Antarctic Peninsula. Relative to the size of the continent, it’s small, but the continent is huge, and the iceberg is the size of Luxemburg, or half the size of Prince Edward Island, depending on where you are from. It will drift slowly with the current that circulates around the continent, and will slowly melt. It may or may not have a disrupting effect on the current.

The huge iceberg that has broken off of Mertz Glacier (NASA)

Parts of the Antarctic ice shelf have been declining for the past few decades, just as glaciers in the rest of the world have been receding. The ice of the Arctic Icecap has thinned and shrunk. These are well documented events. Deniers of climate change can deny what they wish, but the evidence won’t just melt away.

Because of the thinning and melting ice in the Arctic, coastal villages have had to begin to ‘adapt’. With the melting of the ocean ice, ice shelves along the western shore of Alaska and in the Mackenzie Delta have been lost. The coastal frozen sub-soils have been melting. Protection from storm surges has been reduced. Some villages are planning to build dikes. The village of Newtok, on the coast of Western Alaska, is moving to higher ground, 9 miles up the Ningluck river.

Coastal village of Newtok, Alaska: time to move.

And so it begins. Adaptation. Not prevention, not mitigation. Any imminent legislation limiting carbon emissions in the US appears increasingly unlikely. In Canada, the new federal budget pretty well eliminates research on climate change, and in any case the current Canadian government will take no action before the US does.

If adaptation becomes our only option, then we have consciously made ourselves into victims of our own actions. Seems a pity. Still, as Winston Churchill may have said, “Never give up!”