Global warming is opening up the Northwest Passage, raising environmental and security concerns for Canada.
Michael Byers from the University of British Columbia was at Yukon College this week to talk about the melting ice floes in Canada’s northern archipelago.
On October 23, 2006, Byers was aboard a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker sailing through Bellot Strait when he and the captain noticed something they’d never seen before.
The strait was completely devoid of ice.
“Not a single piece of ice — nothing — we could sail right through the strait,” said Byers during his talk.
“This was staggering because we were the first ship in history to sail right through the strait without having to break any ice.”
The clear waters are caused by global warming, said Byers.
“Climate change is having a much more dramatic effect than politicians realize and scientific experts think,” he said.
The lack of ice in the Arctic has a profound affect on both wildlife and people.
When Byers arrived in the Inuit community of Igloolik, the people he met confirmed that there is significantly less ice each year and the situation has been affecting their ability hunt seal on the ice.
There has been a drop in the polar bear population due to loss of habitat, said Byers.
But the thinning ice phenomenon, as Byers calls it, has much deeper implications for Canadian and North American sovereignty and security.
With an open-water Northwest Passage, foreign ships from Europe or Asia can easily access Canadian waters.
“The Canadian legal position is that the Northwest Passage is ours and this argument is founded on two separate pillars,” said Byers.
The first pillar are strait baselines drawn on the Arctic map in 1986.
“Under international law, anything outside those straight baselines constitutes internal waters.
“The baselines are longer than what’s normally allowable under international law and therefore only would be allowable if they were consolidated in some way by human activity.”
Enter pillar two: the Inuit, who have lived on the ice for thousands of years.
“So the Inuit are absolutely essential.
“The Inuit know this and, in 1993, they insisted on a provision in the Nunavut land claims agreement that actually affirmed that their use and occupancy of the ice supported Canada’s sovereignty claim.”
Foreign ships in the Arctic could lead to illegal immigration, illegal firearms trade, and terrorist activity, said Byers.
During his election campaign, Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised to increase Canadian military presence in the North by funding the acquisition of military icebreakers.
“When Steven Harper promised new icebreakers in November 2005, I was the happiest person in the whole country because finally we had a senior politician who understood the urgency and the need for actual serious equipment in the North,” said Byers.
“But he has done nothing to fulfill that election promise so I’m becoming increasingly concerned that he only understands it at the level of political rhetoric and he doesn’t actually understand the reality and the very rapid pace of climate change,” he said.
“This is not something that we can postpone for a year or five years or 10 years; this is happening right now.”
The need for clear, strong laws and regulations for the Northwest Passage is obvious to Byers.
“To protect both American and Canadian interests, and as part of those laws and regulations, you would have laws dealing with the security concerns and laws dealing with the environmental concerns,” he said.
“They’re perfectly compatible and, indeed, you’d actually acquire the same kind of enforcement capabilities because your icebreaker that is enforcing the Arctic Waters Pollution and Prevention act will also be enforcing Canadian immigration law.”
And the Canadian criminal code will be applied to searches of foreign vessels “to ensure that there are no components for weapons of mass destruction on board,” said Byers.
Even though he is concerned about security he thinks new icebreakers should go to the Canadian Coast Guard and not the military.
He believes that the coast guard is more flexible than the military and can better handle both environmental and security concerns.
“The coast guard has the ability to carry police officer and (department of Fisheries and Oceans) officers at the same time,” he said.
“They also go around replacing all the navigation buoys and do you think the military would do that?
“It’s very hard to get the military to do anything that isn’t security related.”
“The big urgency here is that the Arctic is our ‘canary in the coal mine’ for climate change,” said Byers.
People identify with sea ice in the North. When you say the Northwest Passage is no longer choked with it, they begin to realize that climate change is real.
What people in Europe, Asia and North America do has a major impact on the North, he said.
Climate change is a global problem.
The act of driving an SUV in Toronto, can contribute to preventing an Inuit child from experiencing a traditional lifestyle.
“You’re affecting the long-term viability of species like the polar bear,” he said.
“Your actions are not divorced from what’s happening in the Arctic.
“We all live on a single planet and that emissions anywhere have consequences for real people and for real wildlife.”
In southern Canada, people like to believe they are part of an Arctic country.
They like to talk about sovereignty in the North, he said.
“But they almost never make a connection between what they do, the decisions that they make, the kinds of complaints that they make to their elected representative and the loss of that distinct northern lifestyle.”