One thing I neglected to mention in my Oh Canada post about Harper, was his plans for Arctic defense. This would include three heavy-duty, armed icebreakers as well as a new port for them near Iqualuit. Harper would also bring back the Airborne unit (but hopefully not its troubled history), as it would be critical to being able to quickly deploy troops to the Arctic.
This touched off a nerve with U.S. ambassador David Wilkins, declaring that Americans don’t recognize Canada’s claim to the Northwest Passage. This in turn lead to Harper saying he doesn’t take orders on sovereignty from the U.S. ambassador, and that he will stick with his plan to station armed icebreakers, remote-controlled aerial drones and troops in the area (story here).
Why the need for so much posturing over a bit of ice? Times are changing, especially temperatures over the last 30 years in the Arctic. As a result of global warming, Arctic ice coverage has declined by 25 percent, and is 32 percent thinner. The U.S. Navy predicts that the Northwest Passage will be open to non-ice-strengthened vessels for at least one month each summer. So what? Well, The Tyee has a great article: The Need to Defend Our New Northwest Passage
The changing ice conditions offer a sea route between Europe and Asia that is 7,000 kilometres shorter than the route through the Panama Canal. The Northwest Passage could also accommodate supertankers and container ships that are too large for the canal. International shipping companies are eyeing the fuel, time and canal-passage fees that could be saved; some are already building ice-strengthened vessels.
The cruise ship industry is also looking north; the Kapitan Khlebnikovi, a Russian-flagged converted ice-breaker, already offers luxury voyages through the Northwest Passage-at US $10,000 per person. The melting ice will facilitate access to Alaskan and northern Canada’s vast stocks of oil, gas, diamonds and precious metals.
Also, Canada’s Arctic waters could eventually become a valuable fishery as reduced ice cover and warmer waters enable plankton and fish species from more temperate latitudes to move north. Indeed, Pacific salmon and Atlantic cod are already invading Arctic waters, with likely dire consequences for smaller, slower-growing indigenous species.
Canadians should be alarmed. An international shipping route along Canada’s third coast could facilitate the entry of drugs, guns, illegal immigrants and perhaps even terrorists into this country, as well as providing an alternative route for illicit shipments of weapons of mass destruction or missile components by rogue states. And any shipping involves the risk of accidents, particularly in remote and icy waters. An oil spill would cause catastrophic damage to fragile Arctic ecosystems; a cruise ship in distress would require an expensive and possibly dangerous rescue mission. Any new fishery will be highly susceptible to over-exploitation, particularly because of the difficult-to-police location, rapid declines in fish stocks elsewhere and the consequent, excess fishing capacity that now exists worldwide.
Ideally, these challenges would be addressed by applying the full range of Canada’s own environmental, immigration, customs and criminal laws. Sovereignty over the Northwest Passage is about much more than nationalism; it is about protecting people and the environment from serious potential harm. Yet, Canadians could soon lose any ability to regulate foreign vessels in the passage, since any foreign ship that passes through without our permission undermines the sovereignty claim.
Check it out, it is a really interesting read.