The Arctic Playground – Shouldn’t we do our homework before we start playing?

litbonanza.jpgFor some a voyage through the Canadian Arctic may be one of the most exciting and thrilling adventures one could dream of: indeed, hundreds of kilometres of virgin land and cold vastness have challenged thousands of explorers in the past. Many of these arctic adventurers shared a common goal: to seek a navigable passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Thanks to Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian explorer, and his crew, a 400 year search for a shorter sea route between Europe and the Orient was finally crowned with success at the beginning of the 20th century. Amundsen was the first to navigate the full length of the Northwest Passage – a sea route along the northern coast of North America through the Arctic Ocean.

But today much more is at stake on the Arctic Playground. In August 2007, enough ice melted to open up this long-sought passage to navigation [1]. This has renewed the interest in the Northwest Passage as well as in the whole Arctic region in general as the polar ice gives both evidence of global warming and pledges immense natural resources. Conflicting interests in the international dispute over the circumpolar region have brought the Arctic back onto the Canadian foreign policy agenda.

Arctic Adventurers

For more than 400 years, European explorers had been obsessed to find a northern route to the Orient and a shorter route connecting the North American west and east coast. Hundreds of ships – mainly from Spain and England – explored the Northern coast of today’s British Columbia and Alaska as well as to the Hudson Bay area in the east. Propelled by the pursuit for national pride and glory, Great Britain sent a large number of expeditions into the Arctic in the 1800s to now look for the “Northwest Passage”. However, none of the famous expeditions lead by James Cook and George Vancouver were able to find a navigable route through the Canadian Arctic. Nor was the Englishman Samuel Hearne – who is said to have walked 2900 kilometres northwest from Hudson Bay – able to present any evidence of its existence [2].

During the following decades, a sea passage was eventually pieced together through the efforts of numerous explorers: a passage winding along the Arctic coast of the Canadian mainland and through the waters of the Archipelago. It was the Norwegian Roald Amundsen and his crew who finally sailed the full length of the passage in one go. A crucial question, however, remained to be answered: Was there really any practical value to the discovery, since it took Amundsen about three years to complete his voyage as his ship was repeatedly trapped between ice floes?

Despite the tremendous efforts, it was evident that conventional cargo ships could not navigate safely through the Northwest Passage. Moreover, an international shipping route would not be viable since the passage was only navigable for a short period each year when the pack ice started to melt [3]. Other obstacles like the harsh Arctic climate and shallow waters with dangerous ice sheets under the water surface put any further explorations literally “on ice”. During the second half of the 20th century, advances in technologies sparked new interest in the Arctic region: with modern navigation and communication equipment, highly functional clothing and high-performance icebreakers, the Arctic region suddenly became more accessible than ever before. The short summer season remained the only bottleneck that prevented the passage from being exploited commercially.

We are, however, witnessing an unprecedented meltdown at the top of the world that threatens Arctic wildlife and challenges the traditional lifestyle of indigenous peoples. Ironically, bad news for the polar bears may be good news for entrepreneurs!

Effects of global warming on the Arctic region

While the reasons for global warming remain an unlikely matter of debate, the symptoms and effects of climate change can no longer be neglected. Impacts of changing weather patterns can be observed all over the world but scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warn that the Arctic region is particularly threatened by global warming. Summer sea ice has decreased by more than 7% per decade and the Arctic may be virtually ice-free by mid 2070 [4]

But wouldn’t a warmer climate in the Arctic with longer ice-free periods help plants to flourish which in turn could absorb some of the human-induced greenhouse gases emissions? This may be true to some extent, but it does not offset the vicious circle that we have set in motion. Sea ice has a bright surface and reflects three times more of the sun’s radiation back into space than the dark-coloured ocean surface. If the sea ice continues to melt, more solar energy is absorbed instead of reflected, accelerating the warming of the Arctic region even further [5].

As well, the Arctic ecosystem is very fragile and particularly vulnerable to the effects of global warming. Harsh climate conditions and a short growing season during the arctic summer have kept the biodiversity in the Arctic at a low level: Only a limited number of plants, mammals and birds have learnt to adapt to this unique ecosystem. Nature’s response to the low biodiversity has been to develop a highly efficient and dependent food chain. Should one part of the chain, a key species, get irreversibly affected by an increase in temperature, species higher up in the food chain will also suffer.

Global warming particularly affects the algae communities at the base of the food chain. If the porous ice sheets continue to melt, the ice algae lose their habitat and will eventually be replaced by phytoplankton. This may seem to be not so bad, except that a large variety of small organisms and fish live off of this ice algae. What will these fish subsist on once the ice algae have disappeared? Decreasing fish runs are in turn likely to reduce the seal population feeding on them, with devastating consequences for the polar bear and traditional hunting activities of indigenous peoples [6]. In addition, naval traffic will pose an additional threat to the already fragile ecosystem as the Northwest Passage becomes fully navigable.

Economic interests in the Northwest Passage

As if the imminent loss of a unique ecosystem wouldn’t be frightening enough, we are right in the middle of adding an additional degree of complexity: Recent studies by the U.S. Geological Survey suggest that the Arctic region is extremely rich in natural resources; undiscovered oil reserves are estimated at 90 billion barrels [7]. Suddenly, everything appears to fall in place for energy giants such as ExxonMobile and BP: the exploitation of gigantic oil fields together with nearly ice-free shipping routes hold the promise of big profits. Hence, the Arctic oil does not only raise environmental concerns – but also some sticky political questions. In times of impenetrable pack ice, there was no need to argue about a region that no country could make use of anyway. This, however, is changing rapidly as the impact of global warming paves a commercial route to the Far North.

Indecisiveness and confusion run like a golden thread through Canada’s history of claiming its part of the Northwest Passage. In 1969, an American oil company backed by the US government sent an ice-strengthened oil tanker through the passage to test its viability as a potential shipping route. As Canada had not been consulted about the voyage, the event was understood as a serious challenge to Canada’s sovereignty. While Canada claimed that the Arctic waters are territorial waters of Canada and demanded the exclusive right to regulate all shipping through the Northwest Passage, the United States stated that restrictions from the Canadian government would jeopardize the freedom of navigation [8].

On top of that, other circumpolar nations including Denmark (via Greenland), Norway and Russia have made their claims in the Arctic. Russia, for example, caused an uproar when Russian explorers planted their country’s flag on the seabed below the North Pole to further Moscow’s claims. Despite the resonance to Russia’s flag-planting foray, the dash to the Arctic is not just a simple race to create facts that can be consolidated and defended by military power if the situation demands it: Fortunately, it also involves the establishment of legal arguments that have to be shored up by scientific data.

International agreements like the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982) grant coastal nations an economic zone of 370 kilometres beyond their land coast line. This zone can be extended if it is proven that the area in question is an extension of the continental shelf that the country is situated on. Both Canada and Russia base their hopes on the Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater ridge of the continental crust. While both countries hope to establish new outer limits for their respective continental shelves, it may turn out that the ridge in question does not only connect the North American shelf to the Russian one, it is also so close to Greenland that Denmark expressed its interest in it as well.

Any claims under the Law of the Sea must be filed within a decade of ratifying it. This boils down to the fact that Russia’s, Canada’s and Denmark’s respective deadline is approaching quickly giving each country only a few more years to set out their case. The United States, however, do not recognize the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea – like numerous other conventions – meaning that their decade for proving their case has not even started yet.

The quest for a piece of the ice cake

The natural beauty of the remote, exotic world of the Arctic has fascinated explorers for centuries. With its harsh climate, the Arctic may be hostile toward life but it is in fact one of the most fragile and vulnerable ecosystems on the planet. The Arctic is particularly affected by global warming. Melting polar ice sheets do not only threaten Arctic wildlife but may endanger low-elevation coastal zones around the planet with rising sea levels. The Arctic is a good example for the independence and interconnectedness of regional and global issues such as global warming, international naval trade and exploration of natural resources.

The scramble for the Arctic will keep lawyers and geographers busy for decades. Neither demonstrations of power nor military manoeuvres in the permanent ice will solve these problems. The Arctic challenge is more than a gigantic treasure hunt for the best resources. Many circumpolar nations, Canada and the US, in particular, need to do their homework first and address environmental concerns and aboriginal rights. These issues transcend national boarders and call for concerted international (or inter-regional) efforts to protect and preserve such a unique region of our planet.


[1] North American Space Agency (NASA). Southern Route Through Northwest Passage Opens (August 8, 2008). Accessed October 8, 2008 (link).

[2] Kenney, G. Dangerous Passage. Issues in the Arctic, National Hertige Books, Toronto 2006.

[3] Berton, P. The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the North West Passage and the North Pole 1808-1909. Markham: Penguin Books Canada, 1989

[4] International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Fourth Assessment Report. Chapter 4. Changes in Snow, Ice and Frozen Ground, p. 376. Accessed October 8, 2008 (link).

[5] Hall, Sam. The Fourth World. New York: Vintage Books, 1987.

[6] Byers, M., Barber, D., Fortier, L. The Incredible Shrinking Sea Ice, Policy Options, 2, 2005.

[7] U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Circum-Arctic Resource Appraisal: Estimates of Undiscovered Oil and Gas North of the Arctic Circle, Fact Sheet 2008-3049, 2008. Accessed October 5, 2008 (link).

[8] U.S. Department of State (US DS), Foreign Relations. Documents on Global Issues, Vol. E-1, 1969.

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An engineer at heart, Jens Huft has recently discovered his passion for biomedical research which led him to pursue graduate studies at the University of British Columbia. He would like to help advance separation science and contribute to health research by developing a high-throughput micro-scale system for the separation of peptides. Passionate about sustainability, he hopes that both technological innovations and re-education of the public will help meet future challenges. When he is not busy in the cleanroom, he delights in "classical" music and greatly enjoys the outdoors and Vancouver's multicultural flair.