The Globe and Mail • Saturday, February 5, 2000 • Page A9
The Northwest Passage Thawed
For hundreds of years, explorers hunted for the shortcut between Europe and the Far East only to find it choked with treacherous ice. Now, scientists say, Nature has come to the rescue, rapidly clearing a path that could serve as a dependable shipping lane in as little as 10 to 15 years. Will it become the Panama Canal of the North, "cringing prosperity and the potential for disaster? - Who owns it anyway?
The Northwest Passage, tucked away in frozen isolation near the top of the world, has been called the place that God forgot.
But if God put the ice-choked wasteland out of mind, man did not. For centuries, it has gripped the human imagination-first in the 1500s as the mythic gateway to the Orient, and then, by the 19th century, as the ultimate prize of exploration.
The more tenaciously the frigid passage defied European conquest, the more fervid the romantic quest to conquer it.
Generation after generation of mighty explorers have made it the theatre where their dreams played out. And generation after generation saw the passage become the stuff of their nightmares instead.
The Northwest Passage defied penetration until a Norwegian herring boat made it through in 1903, a trick so treacherous no one repeated it until the 1940s. Even now, just a handful of ships can navigate the faithless passage each year, and those are steeled against the terrifying floes and often are accompanied by the most powerful icebreakers known to engineers.
But wait. Fast-forward a few years to, say, 2010 or 2020. Instead of a desolate hell cut off from the bustle farther south, imagine vibrant ports, determined commerce, maybe crime, police, armed soldiers, nightclubs, cellphones. And open waters.
It turns out humans may tame the forbidding frontier after all, in a way inconceivable to those ancient mariners who spent their careers trying to dodge their way through the ice.
Strange as it seems, the Arctic ice is melting at so precipitous a rate that scientists, slack-jawed in shock, now believe that the Northwest Passage may be navigable by regular ships for part of the year, or even all of it, in as little as 10 to 15 years.
What will happen to other world ecosystems-and the people who live in them- as that massive melt proceeds is an open question. Scientists are worried about large-scale drought, flooding and species extinctions.
Canadian politicians do not seem quite as alarmed. So far, the hot issues of the melting North do not appear to be on their radar screen. In fact, the federal departments dealing with the staggering possibilities of a watery Northwest Passage are seeing budget cuts even as their fears grow.
The grand mystery of exactly what is melting the ice is still being debated, and scientists, knowing that time is against them, are scrambling to predict what will happen.
But so far the prime candidate-some say the only known candidate-is human-caused warming of the planet, the payback of a century of intensive industrial activity belching carbon dioxide and other gases into the atmosphere.
Unless this powerful trend reverses itself, the Northwest Passage of the future may utterly shed its reputation as one of the great, inhospitable waterways of the world.
Instead, the experts are actually considering whether it will become the Panama Canal of the North-a tanker superhighway that ships clamour to traverse because it is, as explorers Martin Frobisher and John Davis and Henry Hudson suspected, a shortcut from the wealth of Asia to the hungry markets of Europe. In fact, it would reduce the journey by more than a third.
That, in turn, holds out the possibility that Canada's Northwest Passage could change the pattern of the globe's trade.
Rob Huebert has been puzzling over this phenomenon for a couple of years.
One of the world's foremost experts on the Northwest Passage, Prof. Huebert is a political scientist who is associate director of the University of Calgary's Centre for Military and Strategic Studies.
His concern is northern sovereignty. He worries that control of Canada's North could be bitterly contested in the years to come. And that Canada stands a chance of losing its rights over the North as it becomes more valuable property.
This day, he has been burning the midnight oil marking term papers for two of his undergraduate classes. He looks tired, sitting in his cramped U of C office behind a desk so cluttered it seems as though he is hemmed in by floes of paper. But patiently, over the course of hours, he presents the evidence he has gathered that the melt is in the works.
A DREAM COME TRUE
When the North becomes frozen no more, as experts predict, global trade and all it brings - a thriving economy, drug trafficking, maybe oil spills in pristine waters - could alter the entire Arctic landscape. Some say Canada should stake its claim to the Northwest Passage before others do. But will warming wreak changes so catastrophic that there won't be anything to defend? Already houses in Tuktoyaktuk are falling into the sea and polar bears are dying.
The science of ice is finicky. Even the people who are immersed in it will begin the explanations with a string of caveats. They point out that ice is constantly in motion, even when it appears still. And that the science of ice is constantly trying to catch up with the motion, with varying degrees of success.
One of the few clear statements anyone can make about the changeful Arctic ice is that there is much less of it now than there was a few decades ago. Prof. Huebert points to a study published in December in the journal Geophysical Research Letters that measures the thickness of the Arctic sea-ice cover from 1958 to 1976 and compares the numbers with similar measurements in 1993 and 1997, adjusted for the season. It also compares the numbers for 1993 with those for 1997.
The data were collected by U.S. nuclear submarines (Canada doesn't have any) in U.S. waters, measuring up from points below. The paper by a University of Washington scientist shows that the Arctic ice has thinned by about 40 per cent, on average, over those years. There is some evidence that the thinning accelerated in the 1990s alone. The findings have created shock waves.
"The thinning is remarkable in that it has occurred in a major portion of the perennially ice-covered Arctic Ocean," the paper says. "This is not a case of thicker ice appearing in one region simultaneously with thinner ice appearing in another....
"The present analysis, by contrast, shows a widespread decrease in ice draft [thickness] within the central Arctic Ocean, with the strongest decrease occurring in the eastern Arctic."
To John Falkingham, acting director of the Canadian Ice Service, a branch of the Meteorological Service of Canada, signs of the melt in Canadian waters, including the Northwest Passage, are similar to those found in the astonishing U.S. study.
"We fully expect that that trend is repeated in the Canadian Arctic as well," he said from his office in Ottawa.
While the U.S. measures thinness, Canada has been measuring the shrinkage of the area the ice covers. Looking at it that way, from pictures taken by satellite or by air, there has been a long-term decline of about 3 per cent a decade since 1978, Mr. Falkingham said.
"The kinds of changes we've seen and the rate of those changes is alarming," he said, adding: "What we're looking at is the potential that within our lifetimes, say 10 to 20 years, the amount of ice in the Canadian Arctic could decrease to the extent that the Northwest Passage becomes a viable and attractive shipping route."
* * *
In some parts of the Canadian Arctic, that shrinkage has already been even more pronounced. In Hudson Bay, the area of ice has shrunk by more than 30 per cent since 1978, Mr. Falkingham said.
The shipping season into Churchill, Man., on Hudson Bay has lengthened into mid-November. That was unheard of even 10 years ago, when the season was fixed to end in October, Mr. Falkingham said.
Because of the shrinkage, polar bears around Churchill are starving; the floes they need to carry them to their fishing grounds on open sea are melted, he said.
In Tuktoyaktuk, houses once built solidly on permafrost are falling into the sea, said Colonel Pierre Leblanc, Commander of the Canadian Forces Northern Area in Yellowknife. Others are cracking in two as the permafrost melts and shifts.
And then there is SHEBA-the Surface Heat Budget of the Arctic-a long-running research experiment by the United States and Canada. In 1997, the governments stuck the Canadian Coast Guard vessel the Des Groseilliers staffed with scientists into the oldest, most compact ice of the Beaufort Sea to see how the ice was holding up.
They expected some drifting, but what they found was that this extremely tough, durable ice broke up in the heat. In fact, the research, to be completed in 2002, showed that the ocean water was both warmer than in 1975, when an earlier test was conducted, and much less salty. Both are signs of phenomenally fast warming. The scientists were stunned.
Ancient wisdom tells the tale as clearly as modern science, Prof. Huebert said. Inuit hunters, whose oral records go back hundreds upon hundreds of years and for whom the Arctic is not a dreamland but a home, say they can see that there is less ice than there ever was.
And it is unlikely to stop there. Mr. Falkingham said it is instructive to think of how a pond melts in spring. For months, it is covered with shiny ice, then, all at once, a dark spot appears and the ice vanishes. It looks like that is what is happening in the Arctic.
In climatological circles, this is known as a "positive feedback mechanism," which means simply that it is a phenomenon that feeds on itself. When ice is covered with snow, it bounces energy back up into the atmosphere. But when it starts to melt, the black of the water collects all that solar radiation and melts even more ice.
"The less ice there is, the stronger the conditions that melt the ice," Mr. Falkingham explained.
Gregory Flato looks at it another way. He is a research scientist in Victoria at the meteorological service's Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis. He is one of a handful of people around the world who know how to use simulations on a supercomputer to figure out how human activities are likely to affect climate change in the future.
One of the phenomena that are already associated with global warming is the higher the latitude, the more climate change there is. That is why more changes have shown up so far in the Arctic than at the equator.
In his dry, rather phlegmatic language, laden with warnings that his model contains layers of inferences, this is what Dr. Flato predicts: Within 50 years, assuming greenhouse emissions keep growing, human activities will have so warmed the planet that the ice in the Arctic Ocean as a whole will retreat to a small area surrounding the North Pole during the height of the melt, in September.
During the winter, then, as now, he projects that the ice cap will still cover the whole ocean.
Press Dr. Flato a bit and he puts it this way Today, the ice cap, already retreating, covers roughly 80 per cent of the Arctic Ocean at its minimum in September. By the middle of the century it will be 10 per cent.
"Ramifications for other parts of the Earth's system are presumably very large and dramatic," he says quietly, adding: "This sort of retreat of the ice cover is unprecedented."
* * *
Scientists have been looking for other reasons for the warming. Some have conjectured that it may be the result of natural, temporary variations that will correct themselves over time; the cold, they think, may come back.
But a recent study in the journal Science appears to rule that out. It used climate models covering thousands of years to estimate how the climate would work left to its own devices. Then the study compared that model with actual melting of the Arctic ice from 1953 to 1998.
The probability that melting could be natural, not caused by humans? One in a thousand.
Unless a new theory emerges, Dr. Flato said, the blame for the current climate change must rest with human-caused warming. "It's the smoking gun," he said almost regretfully.
Whatever the exact reason, to Prof. Huebert, the University of Calgary political scientist, the result is distinct. "It's very clear we're in a real big warming period," he said.
While the weather scientists focus on degree of shrinkage or percentage of thinning, Prof. Huebert thinks about two other numbers. One is 12,600, which is how many nautical miles it is between Asia and Europe going through the Panama Canal. The other is 7,900, how far it is using the Northwest Passage.
A difference of that magnitude-if the passage is navigable-is worth money. As well, he pointed out, some modern vessels are too big to go through the Panama Canal and some in the shipping industry have concerns over the canal now that it has passed into the control of the Panamanians from the Americans.
There is already pressure from foreign commercial interests to use the Northwest Passage. In fact, last fall, the Russians pulled a massive floating dry dock all the way through, the first foreign industrial use of the passage in history. The Japanese have invested millions of dollars on ice research in recent years.
André Maillet, superintendent of the Canadian Coast Guard's icebreaking program in the central and Arctic region, said industry is already keenly aware that the passage is freeing up. His service helps ships navigate through this uncertain network of canals in the Arctic Archipelago.
Five ships showed up in Iqaluit in early July, lining up almost a week early for a chance to navigate the great passage. The coast guard was still escorting ships in the second week of November, two weeks later than usual.
All of a sudden, people are seeing Canada's Northwest Passage as a viable travel route, Mr. Maillet said. "We're even seeing it now, that industry is picking up very, very quickly on these trends."
And the coast guard, all too aware of the growing pressure, is already plotting some steps to take. Mr. Maillet said Canada is considering setting up a mandatory reporting system for any ships taking on the passage. Now, it is voluntary and most-but not all-vessels declare themselves to Canada before they go through. But as Mr. Maillet pointed out, Canada is not set up for monitoring undeclared traffic through the passage.
Ross MacDonald, director of the coast guard's Arctic office, hastened to say that the passage is a long way from being a reliable open-water route today. There is no sign yet that a ship not strengthened against the ice could get through. But the coast guard has to believe that that may be in the cards.
"It's got huge implications," Mr. MacDonald said. "It's got the potential to change the way the globe trades."
And to Prof. Huebert, that raises touchy international political issues that are scary in scope.
* * *
The crux of it is this. Canada considers the Northwest Passage to be an internal waterway over which it has exclusive control. That means Canada is adamant that it has the right to set the rules over who gets! to go through and in what sort of vessels. A key concern is to avoid letting rust buckets sally through the passage and risk a devastating oil spill in the fragile Arctic ecosystem that Canada would be on the hook to dean up.
Part of Canada's shaky claim to sovereignty over the passage stems from the fact that the water is covered with ice topmost of the year. That claim is obviously becoming weaker.
To other countries, though-and the powerful United States is the most strident of these, but Europe is also unrelenting-the Northwest Passage is an international strait that ought to be governed by the world's shipping community, not by Canada alone.
In the court of international law, Prof. Huebert said, the position of the United States and most other countries, would probably win the day. Control of the passage may well be wrested away from Canada.
"We know darn well the internal-water argument doesn't hold," he said, sitting in his office surrounded by models and posters of the world's famous naval ships.
It is already an international issue, although politely dormant right now. Over the past 31 years, the United States has twice-spectacularly-tested Canada's control. In 1969, it sent the oil tanker Manhattan through the Northwest Passage in defiance of Canada's claim that it has exclusive rights over-those waters.
And 1985, it casually sent the pride of its icebreaking fleet, the Polar Sea, through the passage because it did not want to spend the time going down to the Panama Canal to get from one end of the Arctic to the other.
Each of those voyages became the stuff of international incidents. The Polar Sea expedition galvanized the government of prime minister Brian Mulroney to set out a policy for the North and to pledge to get a top-class Polar 8 icebreaker to patrol its northern border.
Fifteen years later, when the threat of incursion is becoming all the greater, that policy has fallen to pieces. The Polar 8 purchase was cancelled in 1989, just four years after the scare.
Prof. Huebert said he sees no signs right now that the federal government is taking the melt or its implications seriously. "There's got to be a crisis before we get interested."
* * *
Col. Leblanc, Canada's military commander of the North, has been thinking about this too. His headquarters in Yellowknife was set up in the aftermath of the Manhattan excursion in 1970 precisely because politicians saw that voyage as such a direct threat to Canadian sovereignty. And that was from Canada's best friend, the United States.
Today, Col. Leblanc sees a raft of other threats. He is not sitting up in Yellowknife expecting the Russian armada, but he-along with others in government-is worried about increased drug trafficking, illegal Other criminal activity and pollution to the fragile ecosystem if the Northwest Passage warms up to allow shipping.
"We know the Arctic is opening up and our resources are going to be threatened and we need to do something about it," he said.
He is convinced, for example, that the pristine waters of the North-which make up 10 per cent of the world's freshwater-win eventually become a hot international commodity worth more than oil. Not only win water be more valuable in future, but sneaking in and out of Canada's Arctic win become easier with the melt.
"Has anyone been up to the Arctic to take some of our water? We don't know," he said. "Eventually, the value of water win be such that someone would be willing to do that."
And then there are the oil and gas pools under the frigid Arctic waters, the fantastic diamond finds in Canada's North that promise to make this nation a richer diamond producer than legendary South Africa, and the minerals and metals that appear to be lurking just beneath the surface near Cambridge Bay. All tough to get at if the ice stays, but much more in demand if transportation is possible for more of the year.
The Arctic may become a destination as wed s a thoroughfare, Col. Leblanc posits. He thinks of it as an attic full of stuff Canada has not begun to explore. The way he sees it, the threats to Canada's safety and sovereignty in the Arctic are not simply theoretical. Other people, too, are starting to see the riches.
"It's fine to say it's our back yard," Col. Leblanc said. "But if we don't watch it, people will go and play in it."
Some countries are already testing Canada's patience. Col. Leblanc rhymes off a list of recent incidents.
In 1997, a refitted Russian cruise ship was stranded in the Arctic for two weeks. Luckily, there was no oil spin, but it was a near miss.
In August, a Chinese government research vessel showed up unannounced at Tuktoyaktuk for reasons neither the military nor the RCMP have figured out. Some of the passengers disembarked briefly, but then returned to the ship. In September, a submarine was reported to be cruising in Canadian waters in Cumberland Sound off Baffin Island. Col. Leblanc said it is not clear which country sent the submarine, but Prof. Huebert said descriptions dictate that it was either American or French.
The submarine sightings happened at about the time of French President Jacques Chirac's Sept. 6 visit to Pangnirtung, Baffin Island, to look at Inuit art.
Whoever ordered the submarine mission was clearly violating Canada's sovereignty in an act the country could have taken as a covert operation of war, Col. Leblanc said. In fact, if his troops had found the submarine, they would have forced it to the surface or attacked it.
"At one point, we will have to enforce our Canadian sovereignty by force over the waters of the Arctic Archipelago," he said bluntly. "The discussion must take place as soon as possible. If, indeed, it will be open in 10 years time, we're already too late."
Franklyn Griffiths, one of the pre-eminent scholars and writers on the Northwest Passage and currently the Ignatieff chair of peace and conflict studies at the University of Toronto, is not so convinced that a crisis looms.
For one thing, he points out, delving into the idea late one afternoon from his Toronto home, right now there is an international shipping glut and he is not sure the clamour for new routes is strong, or that using the Northwest Passage would make economic sense.
Even if the passage does become a trade route, he is not convinced the United States would want to anger its northern neighbour. And even if it did, Canadians, especially the younger generations, may simply not care enough about the North to fight for it.
Prof, Griffiths acknowledges this reality although he has been one of the most passionate voices describing the importance of the North to the Canadian identity.
Yet as he continues to consider the question of an open Northwest Passage, he remembers the kerfuffle recently over massive, secretive freshwater exports from Canada to the United States. If Canadians felt that strongly about water, they might want to defend any challenges to the integrity of the North.
Prof. Griffiths thinks out loud back to the tales of triumph and disaster that have made up the lore of the place. He recites part of a hymn that Canadian folk singer Stan Rogers wrote for the passage, about the songwriter's yearning to find a sign of the fatal, l9th century voyage of Sir John Franklin and his conviction that he is following in the footsteps of the brave who went before.
Prop Griffiths, too, can see those wild and savage lands in his mind's eye, can picture himself as the man tracing one warm line through the cold. These are much like the visions that must have driven those hapless early explorers and that would, presumably, come into play for Canadians if the North is threatened.
His professor's voice takes on a dreamy edge as he describes the North he knows: There is the endless expanse in January of the wind-whipped snow, hard like concrete. There is no light, but it is not totally dark. The land, this land that refuses to give up its claim on the Canadian imagination, goes on and on, further than forever.
It is part of what made Canada, he says, part of what led us to find this country and find a home. If it were ever to become an international route over Canada's objections, the loss would be heavy and symbolic, affecting both the past and the days to come.
"This would be a foreshortening of our vision of ourselves and our future."
* * *
Back in Calgary, at home now and nearly talked out, Prof. Huebert has to raise the spectra of another scenario. This is the part the' comes under the heading "And so what?" in his lectures to students.
And so what if the Northwest Passage melts and the same drastic climate changes make Bangladesh drop into the sea or the countries along the Pacific Ocean disappear from the face the Earth? Win the change that goes along with the melted Northwest Passage be so catastrophic no one cares about a new international trade route?
It is something he has thought about a lot. One possibility is that the Arctic will be the place where climate change makes itself most felt. That is already showing up in research studying the fallout from global warming. And it is why, for example, a minion hectares of trees have already died in Alaska because of drought but effects on more southerly areas have not been as marked.
So big changes in the North do not necessarily mean catastrophe everywhere else. Beyond that, and an expanse of water where once ice ruled, who can see?
"It's stiff going to fundamentally alter what is Canada," Prof. Huebert says.
* * *
Alanna Mitchell is a member of The Globe and Mail's Alberta bureau.