The changing security climate (part three)

Scientists predict that, within decades, the Arctic may be ice-free in summer. In the final part of her series, Cleo Paskal examines the opportunities and tensions likely to result from the new shipping routes that will open up.

Over the summer of 2007, several nations with claims on the Arctic — including Russia, Canada, the United States and Denmark — have sent expeditions north to do the diplomatic equivalent of marking their turf. At stake are potentially vast reserves of oil, gold, fish and other valuable commodities that are becoming more accessible as the planetary warming melts away the Arctic’s protective layer of ice.

International law is relatively clear about what it takes to stake a claim. Generally speaking, a nation gets a 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) off its coastline — unless it is on a continental shelf, in which case the nation’s maritime EEZ can follow the contours of the continental shelf, even if the shelf itself is submerged. This is why, for example, the Russians are sending a submarine to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean to try to prove that their continental shelf extends possibly as far as the North Pole. If the effort succeeds, Russia would then have the exclusive right to all the resources found in that territory.

But there is another border issue currently being decided in the north as well.

One of the many geopolitical results of this melting ice is that shipping routes through the Arctic will become more viable. Russia is making increasing use of its territorial northern sea lanes already. And the Northwest Passage, which runs mostly through northern Canada, can reduce traveling time between eastern North America/Europe and Asia by days. For example, traveling to New York from Shanghai thought the Northwest Passage is around 6,500 kilometres (some 4,000 miles) shorter than through the Panama Canal.

However, it looks like the opportunities this new route will open up also will increase tension between states. While Canada claims that much of the Northwest Passage is part of its internal waters, the US contends that the route is actually an international strait, open to free passage for all. (The US is rather generous in its declarations of international straits, including in its list, for example, a tiny strip of water in the Falklands that is only occasionally used for local supply boats).

No one questions that the Northeast Passage is in Canada’s EEZ. The resources in the area are undoubtedly Canada’s. What is being questioned is whether Canada has the right to control traffic in its waters, or if the route is the legal equivalent of an uncontrollable watery highway, leaving Canada’s northern border extremely difficult to police.

This is a large issue in Canada. During the most recent Canadian general election campaign, Stephen Harper, who subsequently became prime minister in February 2007, set out his 5.3 billion-Canadian-dollar plan for defending Arctic sovereignty in an era of climate change. It included stationing armed ice-breakers, building a military/civilian deep-water docking facility and establishing underwater listening posts to monitor northern waters for foreign submarines and ships. Over the summer of 2007, the Harper government announced a US$2.9 billion purchase of new patrol ships (though not icebreakers) for the Canadian navy and the establishment of new Arctic military bases.

Not so subtly, the Canadian military has even renamed the passage Canadian Internal Waters. The main target of all this activity seems to be the United States. While the route remained non-navigable (or at least unprofitable), this was largely a technical debate. Now, according to National Security and the Threat of Climate Change – a recent report by the US admirals and generals — “A warming Arctic holds great implications for military operations.” Tellingly, though, in its entire section on the Arctic, the report does not once mention Canada.

To be declared an international strait, the route must, historically, have been used by international traffic on a regular basis. Obviously, until recent melting and improvement in shipbuilding technologies, that was not possible, as the nineteenth-century Franklin expedition and others fatally proved. The first single-season crossing of the Canadian Arctic by ship did not happen until 1944, when a Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) schooner made the trip to assert Canadian sovereignty and control of the region. The US Coast Guard sent some ships of its own through in 1957, but the US was still sensitive enough to Canadian claims that when SS Manhattan, a reinforced US tanker designed to test the financial viability of the route, went through in 1969, it was accompanied by a Canadian icebreaker. (As a result of this trip and other research at the time, the route was declared unprofitable and the Alaska pipeline was built.)

By 1985, the US was taking a much more strident position. In order to bolster its claim, it started changing the nature of its traffic in the area. While it had long been assumed that both the US and the Soviet Union had been sending submarines under Canada’s Arctic sea ice, visible surface vessels – overt challenges to Canada’s territorial claims—were largely off limits.

Then, in 1985, the US sent the Polar Sea icebreaker through without asking permission. Canada objected. The result was that in 1988 the United States and Canada signed the Arctic cooperation agreement, which stated that the US would ask permission before sending icebreakers through the passage but that, when so asked, Canada would give permission. The agreement did not last. Over the summer of 2005 it was reported that a US military submarine probably passed through the region on its way to a photo-opportunity at the North Pole, where crew members played a quick game of American football for the cameras.

Legally, Canada’s claim is strong. But the changing conditions caused by climate change create a legal uncertainty and give an opening in which international politics can outflank international law. Declaring the soon-to-be-navigable waters an international strait is in the interest of every nation except Canada, and international political support for the Canadian position has been marked by its absence. The US cannot help but be pleased that at least one of Canada’s other neighbours, Danish Greenland, is directly challenging some of Canada’s other territorial claims.

Within Canada there is a lot of support for the government’s stand on Canadian sovereignty in the north. But the fact remains that while Canada can lodge as many complaints as it likes in international forums, it is probable that the US (and possibly other states as well) will become increasingly bold in their transits through the region as they test Canadian resolve. Unless Canada is prepared to use its new military investments, or create stronger, targeted, strategic alliances with an ice-capable counterbalance state such as Russia, the country’s control over the Arctic may be gradually eroded.

This is a clear case where climate change is causing an acrimonious and expensive border dispute, even between two countries that usually are considered allies.

The science: meltdown in the Arctic

Planetary warming will not be uniform over the entire globe. Broadly speaking, the changes in temperature will be relatively small over the oceans, as they can absorb a lot of heat. In the Arctic, however, the changes will be much greater. One reason is that ice, being light-coloured, reflects sunlight. (This is why, for example, it’s cooler to wear white shirts in the summer than dark ones.) As the ice starts to melt, exposing the dark ground or ocean underneath, less sunlight is reflected back into space and more is absorbed by the surface.This results in an accelerated warming of the area, which melts more ice, which exposes more dark ground or water, which absorbs more heat, and so on. This is called a “positive feedback mechanism”.

Other possible positive feedback mechanisms in the Arctic include the warming of the waters themselves, contributing to faster melting at the ice edge, and the lowered elevation of the ice pack as it melts, also resulting in an increased rate of melt. (A mountain, for example, tends to be colder at the peak than the base.)

As a result, in a world where the global mean temperature increases by over three degrees Celsius (37.4 degrees Fahrenheit), for example, there will perhaps be a one- or two-degree increase over the ocean, while in the Arctic the rise might be seven or eight degrees, and the melt — in consequence — surprisingly rapid. The Arctic melt is being observed already. Sea ice is melting earlier in the spring and freezing later in the autumn, and its thickness is decreasing. The Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research says that by 2080, and possibly much sooner, the entire Arctic may be ice-free in summer.

Cleo Paskal is an associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) in London.

Her full report on this topic can be found here

Copyright Cleo Paskal, 2007

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