By Alison Bate
In September 2009, two German heavylift ships dropped anchor at Novyy Port after a historic trip, transiting the legendary Northeast Passage over the top of Russia.
After discharging 44 cargo modules in the Siberian outpost, the MV “Beluga Fraternity” and “Beluga Foresight” sailed on toward Rotterdam with the remaining 3,500 tons of construction materials.
The ships left Ulsan, South Korea on July 23 and 28 respectively, and although accompanied by Russian icebreakers for part of the journey, only met small ice bergs, ice fields and ice floes on what used to be an impenetrable route.
Traditionally, these ships would have traveled from Korea through the Suez Canal, into the Mediterranean and finally the Atlantic – roughly 3,000 nautical miles longer than using the Northeast Passage or so-called Northern Sea Route.
As commercial trips like these become more common – due to global warming – the world’s major players are jockeying for position to exploit the Arctic for their own interests.
Geopolitical, economic and environmental issues are all at stake, not to mention changes to the way of life of those living in the Arctic. The five Arctic nations include Canada, the U.S. (Alaska), Russia, Norway and Denmark (Greenland), but other countries such as China are also hovering nearby.
The Canadian Navy’s Commander of Maritime Forces Pacific discussed these thorny issues at the recent Association of Canadian Port Authorities conference in Prince Rupert, B.C.
Rear Admiral Tyrone Pile said that while Canada’s government has pledged to build more ships and increase its Arctic infrastructure, very little has actually happened. Meanwhile, Russia is investing billions of dollars in infrastructure to its Arctic ports as well as flexing military capability.
“We (Canadians) aspire to be an Arctic nation, but Russia is,” he said. “Why are we not paying attention to the Arctic?”
China is also engaged, renting space from Norway for a permanent ice weather station in the Arctic, sending research ships for the last eight years, and now developing icebreaker ships.
In the U.S., Sen. Lisa Murkowski from Alaska is also concerned and has introduced a bill, the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment Implementation Act of 2009, to improve shipping safety and include funding for navigational aides, vessel tracking, oil-spill response, search and rescue capabilities and ice-breaking escorts.
At the Prince Rupert conference, Pile showed pictures of the Arctic icecap in 2001 and 2007, noting that one-third of the ice had disappeared in just six years, Of the three possible shipping routes, the Northern Sea Route over Russia would be the first one to truly open up, he suggested.
The second route, through Canada’s Northwest Passage, opened up for the first time in 2007, but its potential is a bit of a red herring, according to Pile. “It’s difficult to get through; more like a backroad detour,” he said. The third route, the Trans-Polar, will be the last to open up.
Pile said the Arctic is also attracting attention because of its vast untapped amounts of oil, gas, gold, zinc, and other minerals. A U.S. Geological Survey report in 2008 estimated that the Arctic has about 13 per cent of the world’s undiscovered oil; 30 per cent of the undiscovered natural gas; and 20 per cent of the undiscovered natural gas liquids. More fish are also likely to migrate north, due to global warming.
Pile didn’t discuss the legal issues, but ownership of the Arctic waters is hotly disputed, and a fascinating race against time is under way.
Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), each country controls resources up to 200 nautical miles offshore, but its territory can be expanded if it can prove that underwater ridges and rock formations are connected to its continental shelf.
Russia, Norway and Denmark have already made submissions, while Canada has until 2013 to submit its scientific data. The U.S. has not signed on to UNCLOS, but is working with Canada to locate the outer edge of the North American continental shelf.
For the second summer in a row, scientists on board the U.S. Coast Guard cutter “Healy” have been mapping the Arctic seafloor with their counterparts on board the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker “Louis S. St-Laurent”.
Despite working together, the two countries are at odds over who owns the Northwest Passage. Canada claims that the seasonal shipping lane is internal Canadian waters while the U.S. and others argue that it is an international strait. The U.S. and Canada also disagree on how the border should extend into the ocean between Alaska and the Yukon.
However, while some Canadians view the U.S. as a danger to their sovereignty, Pile doesn’t see it that way. “We will present our views, but we aren’t going to go to war over that,” he said in an interview. “It’s in both our interests to work together in the Arctic.”
Note: This article first appeared in Cargo Business News