Op-Ed: A Less Attractive Northwest Passage is Good for Canada
Back in 1998, when I was the commander of the Canadian Forces Northern Area, I became concerned with the impact of global warming and the disappearance of the ice in the Canadian Archipelago. Although there were no apparent military threats to the Canadian Arctic at the time, there was nevertheless a concern with increasing risks to human security. As ice would recede, maritime access to the Arctic Archipelago would increase. From a sovereignty point of view, I was concerned with potential challenges to Canada’s sovereignty over the waters of the Arctic Archipelago. Many countries claim that the Northwest Passage, and there are several routes a ship could follow, is an international strait between two oceans which gives them the right of transit. This right would also apply to submerged submarines and aircraft over the strait. Canada’s position is that those waters are internal by historical title.
Having complete jurisdiction is extremely important. It allows Canada to be a true steward of the Archipelago and it denies the right of transit. It allows Canada to enact laws and regulations such as the Arctic Pollution Prevention Act to protect a very fragile environment and a very short vertical food chain in the Arctic. It allows the management of all activity, especially maritime activity, to reduce the possibility of an environmental disaster that would likely affect the livelihood of Inuit communities and damage marine sensitive areas.
Following a symposium on arctic security in 1998 which highlighted our lack of domain awareness in the Arctic, I sounded the alarm with the National Defence Headquarters in 2000 and initiated the Arctic Security Interdepartmental Working Group to better coordinate the work of all the federal departments responsible for security aspects in the Arctic. We absolutely had to improve our situational awareness.
I am now less concerned with a challenge to Canada’s sovereignty or security issues over the waters of the Arctic Archipelago. There are several reasons for this. Back in 2000, there was serious concerns that the Northwest Passage and the Northeast Passage would become active maritime transit routes that would increase the likelihood of search and rescue accidents and potential environmental disasters. The attractiveness of those routes was mostly due to reduced transit time between Asia and Europe or the Eastern Seaboard of North America by several days, but it also included the lack of piracy, a problem in places like the Strait of Malacca. Those concerns have not materialized for the Northwest Passage.
The traffic over the Northeast Passage, which follows along the Russian coast line, has seen a modest increase, but has not met any of the aggressive targets set by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Much of that traffic has been destinational in support of the oil and gas industry. With the fast disappearance of sea ice, eventually, the North Pole route will be preferred as it will provide deeper waters, straight lines, and shorter distances.
On the Northwest Passage, the amount of maritime traffic has increased over the years but it, too, is driven more by destinational traffic to support the annual sealift to the Arctic communities or mining activity such as the Baffinland Mary River iron ore mine or the potential shipping of grain out of the port of Churchill. The one exception has been an increase in adventurers and cruise ships.
There are several reasons for the lack of commercial transit over the Northwest Passage. Although there is less ice during the shipping season, there is a lot of ice that moves unpredictably because of currents and winds. In 2018, for example, a multi-year ice plug blocked the Amundsen Gulf and prevented the annual sealift from reaching several communities.
Less than 15 per cent of the Arctic Archipelago is mapped to modern standards. There are no deep sea ports in the Arctic Archipelago for ships to seek refuge or do repairs. Search and rescue assets are extremely limited and can be literally days away in the case of ice breakers and several hours away for the search and rescue aircraft of the Canadian Forces which are based along the Canada-U.S. border. Survival in frigid Arctic waters is counted in minutes without a proper survival suit.
Much of the Arctic Archipelago is shallow thus limiting access for larger vessels. Given all the above, the cost of insurance, if available will reflect the significant risks. Most of the commercial shipping worldwide involves just-in-time deliveries making it unlikely that container ships will use the Northwest Passage because of the uncertainty.
The very large vessels also prefer straight lines and steady speed. The many islands in the Archipelago will require several turns. Communications in the Arctic are still limited and a crucial factor in case of emergency. The International Maritime Organization has recently adopted a Polar Code which recommends and imposes a multitude of standards to be met by shipping companies that wish to operate in the Arctic and Antarctic. This will invariably increase the cost of doing business there. Criminals, for their part, and other less responsible operators, would likely be discouraged given the increase of maritime domain awareness thanks to space based surveillance assets such as the RADARSAT Constellation, the Northern Canada Vessel Traffic Services Zone Regulations, which require ships to report before entry in the Archipelago, the Inuit Marine Monitoring Program and the imminent deployment of the Arctic Offshore Patrol ships.
There is increasing evidence that Arctic storms are getting stronger. They increase the risk for ships that run into problems because of a fire, loss of power or loss of steering capability. A 2019 example was a large cruise ship that lost power in a storm and was being pushed to shore in Norway. The Viking Sky, with some 1,300 people on board, started to evacuate passengers by helicopter. Heavy seas and strong wind made the evacuation extremely difficult. The cruise ship life boats could not be used safely. However, several helicopters managed to extract some 400 passengers by the time the crew managed to restart one engine and avoided running aground. A similar situation in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago would likely turn into a disaster given the lack of nearby search and rescue assets.
Foreign maritime forces are not likely to enter the Arctic Archipelago. Its shallowness makes it challenging for nuclear powered submarines to operate there, given the varying thickness of the ice, the size of those ships and the distances needed for safety. If detected, they would not be able to dive deep below a thermal layer nor manoeuvre safely at speed. Surface warships tend to operate in numbers to be able to protect aircraft carriers also require space to manoeuvre. Lastly only a few naval vessels have double hulls or are built to operate in ice infested waters.
There will continue to be a need to closely monitor maritime activity in the Arctic Archipelago to make sure that all our regulations are abided with and our sovereignty respected. I am not concerned with professional corporations that will meet all the requirements and have the deep pockets to deal with incidents. My concern is more with irresponsible operators who might ignore the standards and regulations aimed at protecting the Arctic. Should they not be able to remediate an environmental spill, we the taxpayers would end up paying for it.
The limited traffic at this time and in the future reduces the likelihood of an environmental incident of a sovereignty challenge. It also provides more time for the Canadian authorities to develop properly mapped specific corridors which will reduce the possibility of grounding, damaging important marine life zones, and endangering the Arctic communities. Over time, improvements by the International Maritime Organization to the Polar Code will further contribute to reduce risk.
Col. Pierre Leblanc (ret'd) is a former commander of Joint Task Force North and president of Arctic Security Consultants.
This article appears courtesy of The Hill Times.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.