By Julie Gedeon

The latest comprehensive report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last month concludes the Arctic will lose a substantial amount of its sea ice. The world’s leading scientific experts predict that the extent of summer ice in the Arctic Ocean will decrease significantly, which will cause the region’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to rise considerably. The extensive summertime melting will open new sea routes that the IPPC recognizes will “have major trading and strategic implications.”

IPPC researchers say a “nearly ice-free” Arctic Ocean during the month of September is well plausible before 2050. By 2100 the Earth will lose 35 to 85 per cent of its remaining glacier volume, if CO2 emissions aren’t significantly reduced.

Arctic shipping and the development of new resources, including fisheries, could be “the silver lining of this dark cloud,” according to John Higginbotham, a Senior Fellow with the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) with decades of experience in transportation, economics and governance. However, Canada also faces huge challenges in providing the region with safety, security and environmental protection with circumstances evolving so quickly.

Arctic sea ice has already diminished by 30 per cent within the Nordic seas over the past 130 years, according to IPPC, but year-to-year variations continue to make it treacherous to sail in the North. “Overall ice coverage is decreasing, but this year’s Arctic summer ice extent was about seven million square kilometres compared to only 3.4 million km² in 2012,” notes James Overland, research oceanographer with NOAA Pacific Marine Laboratory and an affiliate professor with the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington.

Variance occurs in part because of the greater mobility of a thinning ice pack. Depending on the currents, it can move significantly between Russia and Canada,” Dr. Overland says. “This year, it was north of Alaska.

“The multi-year ice from the old days was basically compact and stable, whereas first-year ice is not frozen together and tends to break up and move around more quickly, posing a greater danger to ships,” Dr. Overland explains. “First-year ice can also close around a ship much faster, which should be a real concern to anyone sailing at the beginning or end of the season.” Even with the dramatic ice reductions predicted, shipping will be limited to a portion of the year. “We’re talking about the season going from the current two to three summer months to four or five months within the next 20 years, with ice conditions varying annually,” Dr. Overland says. “And it’s still going to be dark and cold for a good part of that period.”

Despite the hazards, interest in commercial shipping through the Arctic is increasing. The Yong Sheng vessel owned by the China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) made headlines in August as the first containership to use the Northern Sea Route, which shaved time and money off its journey from China to the Netherlands. Russia granted permission to more than 200 vessels of various sorts to go through the Northern Sea Route this past summer.

The possibility of swift change is realized by the countries forming the Arctic Council which Canada at present chairs. “There’s an increasing level of cooperation to try to establish common positions on international standards for the rapid adoption within a Polar Code,” says Andrew Kendrick, STX Canada Marine’s Vice-President of Ottawa Operations and a longstanding member of Canada’s delegation at the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which has to approve the Polar Code.

“Everything within the Polar Code is still in draft form, but I think we have been surprisingly successful in convincing everybody that the polar waters should be a zero-discharge area for oil and oil mixtures,” he says by way of example. Grey water is currently an issue. Canada’s provisions within the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevent Act (AWPPA) remain at odds with what other Arctic states want. The Canadian legislation dates back to 1972 when current technologies for water treatment didn’t exist and requires updating.

The same goes for sewage. The draft Polar Code calls for stringent measures. Canada’s legislation actually permits the dumping of raw sewage while the discharge of treated sewage is prohibited. The rationale again dates back to the early 1970s when the only commercially available way to treat sewage involved chlorine and it was generally accepted that raw sewage was less harmful to water than large amounts of chlorine. Carbon is also under consideration with research being done to determine its impact on the Arctic environment from local and global sources in order to guide future policies.

Extending the North American Emissions Control Area (ECA) to the Arctic is off the table for now. The Arctic was excluded because its sparse population and low density marine traffic didn’t fit the IMO’s criteria for establishing such a zone. “If Canada and the United States had approached the IMO to include the Arctic, notwithstanding the usual criteria, I believe there wouldn’t have been any pushback,” Mr. Kendrick says. “But including it now becomes complicated with neither Canada nor the U.S. having any policy to make the Arctic a part of ECA.”

A huge question for everyone is who’s going to enforce whatever international standards are established under a new Polar Code. “International marine safety management traditionally hands responsibility to a ship’s flag-state which frequently turns it over to a recognized organization, such as a classification society, but how much confidence does anyone have at the moment in an enforcement mechanism for the vast Arctic?”

Canada has been in a unique situation ever since its adoption of AWPPA in 1970. The country’s shipping regulations apply to everyone venturing within 200 nautical miles of Canada’s Arctic shorelines. Other countries, most notably the U.S., have opposed Canada’s stance as illegal under international maritime law. However, Canada maintains its rights under Article 234 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The clause gives coastal states the right to adopt and enforce non-discriminatory laws and regulations to prevent, reduce and control marine pollution from vessels in ice-covered areas within its exclusive economic zone where severe climatic conditions and ice covering are present most of the year and may cause obstructions or exceptional hazards to navigation.

It’s noteworthy that the ice-strengthened freighter Nordic Orion registered with the Canadian Coast Guard before embarking on its journey as the first bulk carrier to sail through the Northwest Passage (accompanied by a coast guard icebreaker) in late September. “Canada’s registration is predicated on Article 234, but there are compelling reasons for shipping companies to do this because of the Coast Guard’s assistance,” says Michael Byers, Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia, whose work focuses on Arctic sovereignty, climate change, the law of the sea, and Canadian foreign and defence policy. “The registration avoided Canada having to take action that might have provoked an international dispute which in this case would have been with a Panamanian-flagged vessel owned by a Danish company.”

While the Nordic Orion’s historic voyage is regarded as a rarity by some, others see the economics. Leaving Vancouver with a load of metallurgical coal, it saved 1,000 nautical miles (1,850 kilometres) in journey time, fuel and CO2 emissions and loaded 25 per cent more cargo than it would have if it had followed its longer traditional route through the shallower Panama Canal. Overall savings were estimated by the Danish owner, Nordic Bulk Carrier, as high as $200,000 with the voyage completed to the Finnish port of Pori in four fewer days. Even with insurance costing up to $100,000, according to some broker estimates, the route saved money overall.

“Many people doubted this kind of voyage would take place before 2050,” says Dr. Byers. “I’m not celebrating its occurrence, but I think it shows that Canada has to grapple with the possibilities of commercial shipping in the Northwest Passage sooner rather than later.” Dr. Byers emphasizes sooner, given that large cargo vessels like the Nordic Orion are filled with upwards of a million litres of bunker fuel to power them. “Their very substantial amount of fuel oil can be just as devastating to the environment as a regular oil spill,” he says.

Russia has already had a close call. In early September, the tanker Nordvik loaded with diesel fuel had its hull damaged after in it ran into floating ice within the Northern Sea Route. Fortunately, the hole in the tanker wasn’t large and it was possible to reload the fuel into another tanker with no leakage. Russian authorities say the Nordvik violated its permit by sailing into medium (rather than light) ice conditions without being escorted by an icebreaker.

While it is doubtful Russia could have done much to save the Nordvik’s crew and diesel fuel had the hole been larger, the country is far ahead of North America in establishing navigational aids, icebreaker escorts, search and rescue capabilities, and ports of refuge along its Northern Sea Route. Fees – competitive with those levied for the use of the Panama and Suez canals – are charged to recover some of the costs.

“We have to provide the practical incentives for shipping companies to recognize Canada’s jurisdiction, and register with the Canadian Coast Guard as the Nordic Orion did,” says Dr. Byers, who authored Who Owns the Arctic: Understanding Sovereignty Disputes in the North in 2009. “We need world-class navigational aids and charts, icebreaker availability and perhaps even escorts, along with search-and-rescue capabilities and ports of refuge – all of which are currently absent along Canada’s Northwest Passage.” He says it’s also time for Canada and the U.S. to end their dispute over the Northwest Passage. He says it no longer serves American interests in the post-9/11 world to insist that the Northwest Passage is an international strait. “Now that the ice is receding and ships like the Nordic Orion are sailing through the Northwest Passage, it raises primarily environmental concerns for Canada to be able to enforce strong safety measures on shipping and, for the U.S., security concerns along one of its longest coastlines,” he says. “It makes sense for Canada to have full jurisdiction that it would obviously exercise in favour of its most important ally, or to establish a treaty as they have with the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway.” According to Dr. Byers, the precedent of nations claiming international waterways as domestic waterways – which has concerned the U.S. Navy for so long – wouldn’t be set, because most international straits are wider than 24 nautical miles and not as susceptible as the Northwest Passage to internal water claims.

While Canada has set worthy goals in terms of the environment, stewardship and the evolution of power towards aboriginal self-determination, Mr. Higginbotham says it’s time for a federal push towards new Arctic economic realities. “The Nordic Orion may be a one-off voyage, but if the economics are right, as its owner claims, then it’s something for the business rather than editorial pages,” he says.

“Yes, we need to protect the environment, but it’s time to think positively about what a maritime economy could be in the changing Arctic and how we can encourage investment and train people to take advantage of new fisheries, tourism and other resources and not just keep it as a wilderness park for southern environmentalists,” he adds. “We lack deepwater ports for traffic, community resupply or refuge and the existing community ports have primitive infrastructure,” he says. “We don’t know what the bottom of the Arctic looks like, our navigational aids are nowhere near modern standards, and communication is quite difficult because geo-stationery satellites don’t work well at high latitudes.”

Mr. Higginbotham says the Harper government is shifting from a militaristic view of the North to more of an economic one, but says a strong federal push for economic development is essential to keep the many territorial governments and federal agencies moving forward with progress.

“The IPPC report indicates dramatic warming for the Arctic within the next 20 to 30 years no matter what’s done to curb greenhouse gases, which will force the native communities to adapt to new ways,” he says. “Since we can’t freeze the Arctic, we should respond to the changes in positive ways with new transportation links, infrastructure to deal with the changing permafrost, and training for people to take advantage of the new jobs that will become available.”