Posts Tagged ‘Northwest Passage opening’

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