- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 4, 2007

TORONTO — A warm summer has produced a record melt of the polar ice cap, leaving the Northwest Passage clear enough for a sailboat to pass and prompting nations of the far north to assert claims over the Arctic Ocean seabed.

“The entire length of the Northwest Passage is navigable,” said Trudy Wohlleben, senior ice forecaster with the Canadian Ice Service, a government agency.

Ice usually blocks at least some parts of the passage, she said. “This melt is unprecedented, and it”s speeding up.”

The development threatens to accelerate long-frozen conflicts over security, sovereignty, environmental and economic conflicts among four powers with claims over the Arctic: the U.S., Canada, Denmark and Russia.

Russia said yesterday that 12 of its strategic bomber planes had begun a two-day exercise over the north of the country that was to include the firing of cruise missiles, the air force said.

All four Arctic powers have publicized their presence in the region this summer, the most dramatic being the planting of the Russian flag under the North Pole by a miniature submarine.

Beneath the Arctic Ocean floor are potentially vast resources, and Canada and the United States have a long-standing dispute over rights to the Northwest Passage, which joins the Atlantic and Pacific.

Mark Serreze, senior research scientist with the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado, said all records for low levels of Arctic sea ice were shattered by mid-August.

“The Arctic is on a fast track of change, and the Arctic sea ice is on a death spiral. Both are moving faster than any of our previous models were telling us. We still don’t understand what’s happening up there,” he said.

Robert Huebert, associate director of the Canadian Center for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, calls the trend troubling.

Canada’s claim of sovereign control over water passage rights through its Arctic archipelago has been disputed by U.S. officials who consider it “international waters.”

“Off the record, American officials understand from a security, alliance, partnership, historical perspective it would make imminent sense to work out some kind of understanding of Canadian control” over the Northwest Passage, he said.

But that would be seen as “backing down” to Canada and prompt other nations with coastlines that the U.S. considers strategic — such as Indonesia and Spain — to demand the same right.

In effect, the U.S. position allows any “North Korean or Chinese ship to sail through North American waters without asking anyone’s permission. From a national security perspective, that’s a mad policy,” Mr. Huebert said.

Yet because of U.S. pressure on this point, Canada doesn’t force ships entering Canadian waters to notify Canadian authorities.

“It’s like asking speeders on a highway to report themselves,” Mr. Huebert said.

Canada and the U.S. lag behind Russia in asserting northern control. This year, Russia commissioned the world’s only nuclear-powered icebreaker, and while Canadian and American icebreakers can reach the North Pole in summer, the Russian ship can get there “any time it wants,” Mr. Huebert said.

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