Northwest Passage redux

RESOLUTE BAY, Canada - Steadily melting Arctic ice is not just exposing vast unexplored fishing stocks and mineral wealth. It’s also rapidly making the Northwest Passage — the passable sea route sought by Henry Hudson and other explorers of the 16th and 17th centuries — fully navigable in the summer.

That, in turn, is forcing Canada to confront a range of sovereignty issues, including disputes with the United States and other Arctic neighbors.

Canada considers the Northwest Passage its internal waters, but the United States insists it is an international strait.

“The heart of the dispute is the transit of international shipping, and who gets to set rules,” says Rob Huebert, associate director of the Center for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary in Alberta.

An open Northwest Passage would cut 5,000 nautical miles from shipping routes between Europe and Asia.

If the passage’s deep waters become completely ice-free in summer months, they would be particularly enticing for massive supertankers that are forced to plow around the tip of South America because they are too big to pass through the Panama Canal.

The search for the Northwest Passage became an obsession for European explorers once it became clear that the vast continents of North and South America stood between Europe and the Orient.

One of the most famous explorers, Henry Hudson, made four unsuccessful attempts to find a sea route to China in the early 17th century — one up the Hudson River and three through Arctic waters. Hudson’s career ended when a mutinous crew set him adrift in a rowboat somewhere in the Hudson Bay and returned to England.

It took nearly three centuries before Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, known as “the last of the Vikings,” became the first to make it through the entire length of the passage. He did it with a 70-foot fishing boat in 1903.

According the Canadian Ice Service, the amount of ice in Canada’s eastern Arctic Archipelago decreased by 15 percent between 1969 and 2004. In parts of the Western Arctic, the ice has receded by 36 percent.

Even before the passage becomes ice-free, other developments are expected to create a host of new security and law-enforcement issues. Among those trends: the world’s increasing thirst for oil and gas, exploration for precious metals and diamonds, growing demands on the northern fishery and a steady rise in ecotourism and adventure travel.

Canada has at least four territorial disputes with its Arctic neighbors — two with the United States, one with Russia and one with Denmark — that could flare up with the receding ice.

Canada already accuses Denmark of launching invasions of its Arctic domain by sending ice-reinforced frigates, the HDMS Vaedderen in 2002 and HDMS Triton in 2003, to stake a Danish claim to Hans Island.

The tiny pimple of rock and ice, home to a seal colony that attracts the occasional hungry polar bear, is so small it does not even show on most maps. But neither side is backing down.

The Danes, who already own Greenland, say they own Hans Island as well. During both trips, Danish marines landed, raised the kingdom’s flag and left plaques asserting their claim.

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