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Claiming the Arctic April 24, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in arctic, Canada, diversity, environment, explore, global warming, nature, world.
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Northwest Passage - Globe & Mail

Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage
To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea;
Tracing one warm line through a land so wild and savage
And make a Northwest Passage to the sea.
                                    “Northwest Passage”, by Stan Rogers

The dotted blue line of the new 200-mile limitCanada has one of the longest coastlines in the world. Although it borders on three oceans, until recently, it hasn’t paid much attention to the mostly frozen Arctic Ocean at its back door. That is now beginning to change.

Under the United Nations Law of the Sea convention, signed by Canada in 2003, coastal countries can extend their sovereignty beyond the usual 200-nautical mile limit recognized in international law if the seabed is an extension of the continental shelf.  Since Canada ratified the convention in 2003, it has until 2013 to submit scientific evidence to extend that limit.

That potentially gives Canada claim to an area the size of the Prairie provinces that could contain natural gas, oil and other resources. Canadian scientists are struggling against unpredictable ice conditions to map the ocean floor.

However, the resource-rich Lomonosov Ridge, which runs between Greenland and Russia, will be a bone of contention. Russia is claiming this undersea mountain range is part of Russian territory. In 2006, Canada and Denmark cooperated in a mapping project to try to show that the structure of the undersea Lomonosov Ridge is an extension of the North American continent.

The Arctic Ocean is now being mapped

Canadian attention is also focused strongly on the ownership of the Northwest Passage. This past summer, satellite images showed that the passage between Canada’s arctic islands was ice-free for the first time in recorded history. And there are predictions that the it may be open for much of the summer in as little as 15 years.

If these predictions come true, the Northwest Passage could become a busy shipping route. The Northwest Passage is 7,000 kilometres shorter than the current shipping route through the Panama Canal. That’s about two weeks saved in travelling time.

Under the UN Law of the Sea, all ships are guaranteed passage through international straits. Should the winding Northwest passage between the northern islands be considered an international strait, or part of Canadian waters? Perhaps the best solution is to open the passage and govern it, as Nunavut resident Paul Kaludjak suggests: “The best way to have our sovereignty accepted by the international community is not to restrict entry to territory, but to facilitate use of it in accord with Canadian regulations.”

Canadian rangers patrol the ArcticThe Arctic lands are the traditional home of the Inuit nations, and their livelihoods depend on the rich resources in the harsh northern habitat. The Canadian Rangers, who patrol and police the North, are predominantly Inuit. Whatever decisions are made about the Arctic will affect the environment and the livelihood of these northern peoples.

The goal of the UN Law of the Sea is to share the ocean resources fairly between coastal countries. We don’t need a cold war over the Arctic; there’s room for everyone to “play nice” as long as environmental studies and regulations are put in place first.

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Related LInks:
…Or Something (blog): “Geology, geopolitics, and the Law of the Sea
Nunatsiaq News: “Measuring Mountains Under the Sea”
Seed: “Deep Space: The last great land rush on the planet will be at the bottom of the ocean”
Geology.com: “Northwest Passage — Map of Arctic Sea Ice”
CBC: “Canada’s Arctic claim work challenged by ice, logistics”
National Post: “Canada’s Arctic mapping key to resource claims”
CBC In Depth: “Canada’s Arctic sovereignty: Drawing a line in the water”
“Sovereignty and Inuit in the Canadian Arctic”

Wired: “Today, Countries Battle for a Piece of the Arctic. Tomorrow? The Moon”
CBC In Depth: “The Northwest Passage: The Arctic Grail”

CBC multimedia: “Breaking the Ice: Canada and the Northwest Passage”



1. Richard - April 24, 2008

I’ve got nothing against opening up the Northwest passage for shipping (as long as it doesn’t have any negaive impacts on the surrounding environment) but I think the Arctic itself should be like Antarctica – immune from any sort of drilling/mining from any country. Otherwise I can just see this becoming a bit of a ‘cold war’ (good pun Gillian!) with everyone losing out in the end.

I’m sure someone will figure out what the best thing to do is! 🙂

2. eyegillian - April 24, 2008

I agree with you in principle, Richard. However, I believe the main reason that the Antarctic is so “protected” is that it is an extremely hostile environment — it’s not as if corporations are fighting over a chance to mine the Transantarctic Mountain Range!

The Arctic, on the other hand, appears to be warming and melting, and therefore it is also becoming more inviting and hospitable for resource exploration. Since the Arctic is mostly water (or ice), it’s not just a matter of monitoring ports or landing points (as in Antarctica) for those with security or environmental concerns. I expect it would be extremely difficult to track anybody’s movements if they just wanted to “help themselves”. That’s why I think it’s so important to support regulation, so there’s a set of international standards and agreements to back up countries trying to protect their territories and neighbourhoods.

That’s not to say there “should” be drilling or mining. I imagine there’s some technology catch-up that would have to happen first, so perhaps that’s a question for a later generation. But whether or no, it would be wise to decide on standards and governance now, before any harm is done.

3. lavenderbay - April 28, 2008

Two things come to my mind, and you’ve probably already explained them, but…
One. Won’t having bigger territories create bigger reasons for warfare?
Two. Does this new convention include the responsibility of each country to protect the ecology of its new possession?
Two and a half. Owning the land under the sea, to my mind, is not far off from making people pay rent on the air we breathe.

4. eyegillian - April 29, 2008

Thanks for your questions, lavenderbay
1. I hope not.
2. Yes.
2.5. Hmmm… good point. People really do pay for air rights in some high traffic areas in the city, but I think it’s more like a right-of-way than actual ownership. So, while I don’t know the wording of the convention, maybe it should say that nations have the right to use and the responsibility to care for the land and waters that surround them, up to a negotiated limit.

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