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Northwest Passage

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The Northern Passages

15 September 2009

The Northern Passages

By Gwynne Dyer

Early next week two German-owned container ships will arrive in Rotterdam from Vladivostok in the Russian Far East, having taken only one month to make the voyage. That’s much faster than usual – but then, they didn’t take the usual route down through the South China Sea, past Singapore, round the bottom of India, through the Suez Canal (pay toll here), across the Mediterranean and up the west coast of Europe. They just went around the top of Russia.

It’s the first-ever commercial transit of the Northeast Passage by non-Russian ships, and it shortens the sea trip between East Asia and Europe by almost a third. It’s the melting of the Arctic sea ice that has made it possible, although for the moment it’s only possible for a couple of months at the end of the summer melt season, when the Arctic Ocean’s ice cover has shrunk dramatically. But it is a sign of things to come.

The voyage is more evidence that climate change is well underway, and will strike the Arctic region hard. But it also shows that all the fuss about the Northwest Passage is irrelevant.

It’s the Northwest Passage, another potential short-cut between Europe and East Asia that goes through the Canadian Arctic archipelago, that has got the attention in the past few years. Although ice-breakers have traversed it from time to time, no ordinary commercial ship has ever carried cargo through it. But when the Russians put on their little propaganda show at the North Pole two years ago, the Canadian government had kittens.

In 2007 Artur Chilingarov, a Russian scientist famous for his work in the polar regions and personal Arctic adviser to then-president Vladimir Putin, took a mini-sub to the North Pole and planted a Russian flag on the seabed. Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper immediately flew to Iqaluit in the high Arctic and responded with a rabble-rousing speech.

“Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty in the Arctic,” he said. “We either use it or lose it. And make no mistake: this government intends to use it.” He then announced a programme to build six to eight armed Arctic patrol vessels to assert Canadian control over the Northwest Passage, and a deep-water naval base on Baffin Island to support them.

“I don’t know why the Canadians reacted as they did,” Chilingarov told me a few months later in Moscow, and on the face of it he had a case. After all, Russia has no claims over any land or water that might conceivably belong to Canada, and Canada makes no claim on the North Pole. But Chilingarov actually understood the game that Harper was playing quite well.

Canada’s dispute over sovereignty in the Northwest Passage is actually with the United States, not with Russia. The Russians have absolutely no interest in the Northwest Passage, since they have their own rival, the Northeast Passage. But the United States used to believe that the Northwest Passage could be very useful if it were ice-free, so Washington has long maintained that it is an international waterway which Canada has no right to control.

Canada disputes that position, pointing out that all six potential routes for a commercially viable Northwest Passage wind between islands that are close together and indisputably Canadian. But Ottawa has never asserted MILITARY control over the Northwest Passage until now, because to do so would risk an awkward confrontation with the United States. However, if you can pretend that you are building those warships and that naval base to hold the wicked Russians at bay, not to defy the Americans….

That is Harper’s game, and he now visits the high north every summer to re-assert Canada’s sovereignty claims. But in the end it will make no difference, because the Northwest Passage will never become a major shipping route. The Northeast Passage is just too much easier.

The problem for Canada is that all the routes for a Northwest Passage involve shallow and/or narrow straits between various islands in the country’s Arctic archipelago, and the prevailing winds and currents in the Arctic Ocean tend to push whatever loose sea ice there is into those straits. It is unlikely that cargo ships that are not double-hulled and strengthened against ice will ever get insurance for the passage at an affordable price.

Whereas the Northeast Passage is mostly open water (once the ice retreats from the Russian coast), and there is already a major infrastructure of ports and nuclear-powered ice-breakers in the region. If the distances are roughly comparable, shippers will prefer the Northeast Passage every time – and the distances ARE comparable.

Just look at the Arctic Ocean on a globe, rather than in the familiar flat-earth Mercator projection. It is instantly obvious that the distance is the same whether shipping between Europe and East Asia crosses the Arctic Ocean by running along the Russia’s Arctic coast (the Northeast Passage) or weaving between Canada’s Arctic islands (the Northwest Passage).

The same is true for cargo travelling between Europe and the west coast of North America. The Northwest Passage will never be commercially viable.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 7. (The voyage…irrelevant”; and “I don’t…well”)

Arctic Scramble

10 August 2007

Arctic Scramble

By Gwynne Dyer

Among the headlines I never expected to see, the top three were “Pope Marries,” “President Bush Admits Error,” and “Canada Uses Military Might,” but there it was, staring up at me from a British newspaper: “Canada Uses Military Might in Arctic Scramble.” Read a little further into the story and the “military might” turns out to be some armed icebreakers and two small military bases in the high Arctic, neither of which will be operational for some time to come, but all the same….

At the beginning of August, mini-submarines planted a Russian flag on the Arctic seabed at the North Pole, symbolically claiming the Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater mountain range, as part of the country’s continental shelf. If the claim were accepted, it would expand the Exclusive Economic Zone in which only Russians can exploit minerals and other seabed resources all the way to the North Pole, but it wasn’t immediately obvious how planting a titanium-encased Russian flag on the sea-floor advanced Russia’s case.

Days later, Danish scientists headed for the Arctic to gather evidence for their claim that the Lomonosov ridge is actually an extension of Greenland’s continental shelf, and therefore belongs to Denmark. “We will be collecting data for a possible demand,” explained Christian Marcussen of the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland. And then last Friday Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, flew to Resolute Bay in the territory of Nunavut for the photo-op of a lifetime.

“Canada’s new government understands that the first principle of Arctic sovereignty is: use it or lose it,” said Harper, for the second time in a week trotting out a phrase that was originally coined to describe one of the uglier realities of nuclear strategy. Nunavut is one of the coldest human settlements on earth, but Harper was having the time of his life. For once there was some sort of threat to Canada’s sovereignty, or at least it could be made to look as if there were, and he was the staunch patriot standing up for Canada’s rights. What politician could ask for more?

It’s actually the Canadian government that has led this round of Arctic posturing, beginning with its declaration in April that the Northwest Passage, a series of channels between Canadian-owned Arctic Islands that would connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans if they weren’t choked with ice most of the year, would no longerbe classified as “territorial waters” (through which foreign ships enjoy the right of innocent passage, although foreign warships are expected to seek permission). In future they will be “Canadian internal waters,” over which Canada exercises complete control.

It was a crowd-pleasing gesture in Canada, especially since the United States has long denied that the Northwest Passage is even Canadian territorial waters, insisting instead that it is “international waters” over which Canada has no control. Washington has even sent warships through from time to time, deliberately not asking permission, which greatly annoyed Canadian nationalists. And global warming means that by 2015 or 2020 the Northwest Passage might even be open to commercial shipping for five or six months a year, so Harper had a plausible pretext for getting excited.

But it was a pretext, not a reason, since there is actually no danger that the United States is going to steal the Northwest Passage from Canada, or blockade it, or even attack Canadian ships. Yet Harper has announced that Canada will spend $7 billion on six new armed ice-breakers to assert its sovereignty in Arctic waters, build a new deep-water port at Nanisivik on the northern tip of Baffin Island for both military and civilian use, and even open a new army training centre for cold-weather warfare at Resolute Bay.

This all makes great copy, but just whom are these soldiers supposed to fight? Russians infiltrating the Canadian Arctic on foot? And what are the guns on the new Canadian ice-breakers for? Fighting the US Navy the next time it sends a ship through the Northwest Passage without permission? There is a scramble for the Arctic, but it is not military. It’s about laying claim to potentially valuable resources on the basis of geographical and geological data, within the framework laid down by the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea.

The 1982 treaty, which now has 155 member-states, sets out the rules for claiming seabed rights, which is the only issue of real economic importance to the various Arctic players. It’s all about mapping the seabed, doing the seismic work, and registering your claims within ten years of ratifying the UNCLOS treaty. In Canada’s case, that means by 2013, and it would do better to concentrate on that task, like the Russians and the Danes, rather than make meaningless military gestures.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 1. (“Among…the same”)