Monday, April 16, 2007

TORONTO - Battling high winds, 25-foot ice walls, mechanical breakdowns and whiteout conditions, a Canadian military team, including Eskimo reservists, last week completed a 17-day trek designed to sustain Canada’s claim to sovereignty over the high Arctic.

“One night was so bad our escort planes couldn’t land, and we were out of fuel and kerosene,” said Maj. Chris Bergeron, 48, who led the expedition. “But they flew over the storm until there was an opening for our resupply.”

Conditions at times were so poor that it took hours simply to pitch a tent, Maj. Bergeron added. “The last day, it was like someone was trying to stop us from achieving our goal.”

Canada has always fiercely guarded its sovereignty over its Arctic archipelago the triangle of more than 36,500 islands that reaches from its Arctic coast almost to the North Pole. Some of the islands are no larger than a man could stand on, while others, like Baffin Island, are nearly the size of France.

But as higher global temperatures peel back the ice casing from the land and ice-choked waterways give way to lapping waves, what was once seen as a wasteland now offers a potential mineral bonanza including gold, diamonds, oil, emeralds and a long-sought northern sea route from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

In the 1970s, President Nixon wanted to show Canada he didn’t need Ottawa’s permission to send ships through the northern waters and promptly got stuck in the ice. Canadian icebreakers rescued the stranded American ship.

In the 1980s, with Canada’s northern forces in disarray, President Reagan backed a similar effort to transit the northern passages as international open waterways.

That time, the U.S. Coast Guard vessel Polar Sea had no problem with the ice, but Canadian public outrage and Mr. Reagan’s personal friendship with Canada’s then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney prompted the U.S. to back off.

Canada’s current prime minister, Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper, promised during his election campaign to spend more than $4 billion to beef up Canada’s Arctic presence with new, military-class icebreakers and underwater detectors.

Just after the election, U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Wilkins said Canada shouldn’t send military icebreakers into its North because “we don’t recognize Canada’s claims to those waters” and “most other countries do not recognize their claim.”

Mr. Harper, who had been hampered by public concerns he might be too close to an unpopular American president, found the perfect moment to assert his independence.

“The United States defends its sovereignty, and the Canadian government will defend our sovereignty,” Mr. Harper said. “It is the Canadian people we get our mandate from, not the ambassador of the United States.”

Maj. Bergeron’s 490-mile journey, accompanied by six men and a female Canadian reporter, blazed an uncharted route across the steel-hard ice and prehistoric rocks of Canada’s Arctic landscape. His was one of three such teams to crisscross the Arctic beginning March 24.

Using snowmobiles and sleds called komatiks to haul their provisions, and watched over by planes and satellites, Maj. Bergeron’s team made its way across land and frozen sea from Resolute to Grise Fiord to Alexandra Fiord then Eureka, Ward Hunt Island and finally Canadian Forces Station Alert where Canada meets Greenland and Moscow is closer than Ottawa.

The Canadian Rangers, a group of reservists, mainly Eskimos in the Far North, are an essential part of any mission to the region, Maj. Bergeron said. “Without them, we’d be dead.”

A highlight of the mission, dubbed, “Nunalivut” (Land that is ours), was the planting of a metal Maple Leaf flag at Alert, the whitest tip of the Great White North.

Maj. Bergeron said the team saw ample evidence the melting that could open the region to exploration and economic exploitation is well under way.

He said old-timers among the Eskimos, who call themselves Inuit, told him they had never seen open water and bare rocks so close to the North Pole.

Two summers ago, said Martin Sharp, a glaciologist at the University of Alberta, temperatures hovered in the low 70s for 10 days at Canada’s Axel Heiberg Island, about halfway between the Arctic Circle and the North Pole.

The melting has a downside for Canada, however.

The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea signed by Canada but not by the United States recognizes that near-permanent ice-covered waters between bodies of land can be considered an extension of the land for purposes of sovereign regulation and control.

However, as the ice melts, Canada’s legal shield could melt with it.

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