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Melting Arctic Ice Could Open Northwest Passage and Lead to Environmental Disasters

By November 6, 2006

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Biologists, fishermen, climate scientists, the Inuit people, and even international law experts, are viewing increasing Arctic temperatures and decreasing Arctic ice with growing concern.

Satellite images confirm the Arctic ice cap is thinning dramatically—by 30 percent over the past 25 years—and other records show a temperature increase of 5 degrees since the mid-1970s. And because ice reflects sunlight and heat back into the atmosphere, scientists predict the massive loss of ice will also accelerate global warming, causing the ice to melt even faster.

The loss of ice threatens many native species with extinction, while others are driven farther north as new species from warmer areas are lured into the suddenly less frigid waters. But it is the anticipated proliferation of the species Homo sapiens in the northern wilderness that poses the biggest threat to the Arctic environment.

Photo courtesy of Luis C. Tejo

Opening Northwest Passage Poses Environmental Risk to the Arctic
Melting Arctic ice is expected to open up the legendary Northwest Passage, a 4,000-mile shortcut across the top of North America through previously frozen seas, which could save ships tremendous amounts of time and money. At the rate the Arctic ice is melting, scientists predict the Northwest Passage could open as early as 2015.

Once the passage begins to clear, ships will use it, and therein lies the danger. Floating ice, known as icebergs, can cripple or destroy ships—remember the Titanic—and the potential for human and environmental catastrophes from shipwrecks, oil spills and ecological degradation is enormous.

Michael Byers, an international law expert at the University of British Columbia, told The Washington Post that “the reputable shipping companies would not come here” until the risks of icebergs are low. “But my worry is the tramp steamer with a single hull under a Liberian flag and Philippine crew. You dangle a 4,000-mile shortcut in front of them—that means time and money. There will always be someone who rolls the dice.

"They run into an uncharted rock, and all of a sudden it's Exxon Valdez times ten," he says.

"We can't afford to wait until disaster hits," says Gary Stern, chief scientist on the Amundsen, a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker than patrols the Arctic Ocean. “Before, you were wondering if anyone was listening. Now, they can't ignore it. Global warming is here.”

Who Should Control the Northwest Passage?
The United States and Canada are already arguing about who controls the Northwest Passage and how it can be used. Canada clearly owns the Northwest Passage and claims sole jurisdiction over its waters, in part to reduce unsafe shipping and the chance of accidental oil and chemical spills in the pristine Arctic environment.

The United States argues that the Northwest Passage is an international shipping lane, like most other straits around the world, and should be open to all navigation. The problem with the U.S. plan, even though it is consistent with current practices in other parts of the world, is that it leaves a previously pristine environment essentially unprotected from transient humans with widely disparate environmental views and standards.

On the other hand, Canada's claim is weakened by its lack of resources to patrol and manage the passage. Currently, there are no Canadian icebreakers that can make the journey during winter, no search-and-rescue helicopters stationed in the area, no military unit that can deploy quickly in the Arctic, and no submarine capable of traveling under the polar ice cap. Canada has promised to build three new icebreakers and to construct a deep water port at Iqaluit, the capital of the Canadian territory of Nunavut, but none of those projects have been funded.

According to Byers, if foreign ships begin using the Northwest Passage, Canada will lose its jurisdictional claim. And for now, the only thing stopping ships from making the journey is the melting ice.

"If a foreign vessel wanted to come through here right now, it could," Byers told The Washington Post. "It's a big welcome mat for all the fly-by-night companies."

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November 8, 2006 at 10:40 pm
(1) Dr. J. Gokhale says:

It won’t be Phillipines and Liberians, and the potshot was stupidly racist. It is far more likely U.S. and other nordic crews who don’t fear cold and ships of teh nordic nations, whether military or profit driven companies, that are likely to use it.

November 8, 2006 at 10:45 pm
(2) DRJG says:

How is it a shortcut for Liberians or Phillipines, who can use Panama? It is only a shortcut for US northwest ot northeast.

November 9, 2006 at 12:44 pm
(3) oriannah says:

wow, this is a really big issue. in geogrophy we have this project and this yopic is perfect for it!!!! i hoe that the scientist’s can find a way to save the arctic

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