Warming climate opens late-season Arctic routes

Nathan VanderKlippe
CanWest News Service; Edmonton Journal
Friday, October 27, 2006


YELLOWKNIFE, N.W.T. -- Arctic straits that are typically choked solid with ice this time of year remain completely open to shipping traffic late in October, raising profound issues for Canada as it struggles to maintain its grasp on the Arctic.

For the past week, the Canadian Coast Guard scientific icebreaker Amundsen has sailed east from the Nunavut hamlet of Kugluktuk, encountering virtually no resistance through straits that have for centuries been nearly impossible to traverse, even in summer.

"We actually went through Bellot Strait and Fury and Hecla Strait, which nobody has ever done this time of year," said Fisheries and Oceans researcher Gary Stern, who is serving as chief scientist aboard the Amundsen. "There was absolutely no ice."

In 1822, when Fury and Hecla Strait was discovered by explorer William Edward Parry, its ice remained so thick at the height of summer that he was forced to anchor his boats and cross by foot. As recently as 1999, Canada's most powerful icebreaker, the CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent, encountered so much ice during an August journey through the strait that she sustained damage to her propellers and could not move faster than 200 metres per hour.

But what is historic today could soon become routine as a warming climate melts the Northwest Passage.

"It's nice to know that you are one of the few going through there," said Capt. Alain Gariepy, the commander of the Amundsen. He spoke from the ship after crossing through Fury and Hecla Strait for the first time in his more than two decades of Arctic sailing.

"At the same time, you think maybe it's not going to be that difficult in the years coming. Maybe it's not such a feat any more."

In fact, for much of the last couple of months the Northwest Passage, the fabled route through the Far North that resisted sailors for centuries, has been open to transit for ships with only modest ice-strengthening, with no need for icebreaker support.

The passage remains an attractive route because it cuts 7,000 kilometres from some shipping routes between Asia and Europe.

Canada claims the Northwest Passage as an internal waterway, over which it can impose its own environmental controls and deny passage to other ships. The United States and most other maritime powers call it an international waterway where right of passage is guaranteed.

Although Ottawa has pledged an expanded Arctic presence including armed icebreakers to strengthen Canada's claim, no solid commitments have yet been made.

"From what I've seen E I am increasingly convinced that Canadian policy-makers are living in a complete state of denial when it comes to the dangers of international (Arctic) shipping and the kind of time frame involved," said Michael Byers, a University of British Columbia law professor who holds the Canada research chair in global politics and international law, and is sailing aboard the Amundsen. "Because it's coming fast. It's now, from what I've seen, a question of years rather than decades."


Edmonton Journal © CanWest News Service 2006

Informant: binstock


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