Thinning ice already increasing traffic in Northwest Passage

Ottawa not doing enough to ensure Canadians control commercial shipping there, experts say

by Bob Weber

The Canadian Press (June 14, 2009) — The thinning Arctic ice pack is already producing the much-anticipated surge in commercial shipping through the Northwest Passage.

And as the pace of ice loss accelerates, experts say the federal government is not keeping up to ensure Canadians control it.

Three companies are now planning to send commercial vessels deep into the Passage’s once ice-choked waters this season – triple the number from 2007. There are now more solely commercial vessels in the Passage than there were ships of all kinds just a few years ago.

“The ice is more favourable than in past decades,” said Captain Georges Tousignant, who is scheduled to take a cargo ship from Montreal almost to the western gates of the fabled waterway this September – the first such passage for Nunavut Eastern Arctic Shipping.

“It’s navigable,” Capt. Tousignant said. “It’s not that high-risk.”

With that run, which will land supplies at communities all along the Arctic coast, NEAS joins two other shippers plying the same waters.

DesGagnes Transarctik sent its first cargo vessel into the Passage last season. Northern Transportation Company Limited has shipped to those communities for years, sailing from west to east.

Experts have long predicted that shrinking Arctic ice cover would lead to an increase in use of those waters. The increase, they said, would be created by demand from local communities and growing northern industrial development.

That’s exactly what’s happening.

Coast Guard figures show there were 62 commercial and resupply ships and three ore carriers in the Passage last year. That’s more than all 54 of the ships that entered those waters just four years earlier, which includes research and recreational vessels.

Although the Coast Guard expects the number of research and tourist ships to decline slightly, commercial shipping is still expected to increase.

“The demand is increasing steadily,” said Waguih Rayes, DesGagnes’ general manager.

That demand comes not only from Nunavut’s growing population, but from the federal government’s increasing spending on northern infrastructure. Northerners rely on sealifts for everything from bulk supplies of dog food to concrete and lumber.

“Ten years ago, how much money was spent on infrastructure building schools and hospitals in the North compared to today, the difference is huge,” said Mr. Rayes.

Shippers also have their eyes on the mining industry. While the current economic slump has delayed development of the several resource projects slated for the Arctic, Mr. Rayes said it’s not too soon to start preparing for them.

“The mines one day will become active. We’re going to see years when what we talk about today will be doubled and even tripled.”

Ice conditions are likely to encourage that increase.

The U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Centre reported last week that the pace of ice melting throughout the Arctic over the month of May was about 54,000 square kilometres a day – well above the long-term average.

And every May, there’s less ice. The long-term trend shows an average decline of 34,000 square kilometres of ice a year.

That means that thick, multiyear ice that impedes navigation could soon be a thing of the past, said Michael Byers, international law professor and Arctic expert.

“From that point, the Arctic becomes comparable to the St. Lawrence,” he said.

International shippers are already making increasing use of the Passage. A cable-laying ship sailed through last year from Hong Kong to a project in the North Atlantic, Mr. Byers said.

Canada hasn’t kept up, he said.

Although Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared last fall that all ships in the Passage would be required to report to the Coast Guard, those regulations still haven’t been passed into law.

Nor does Canada have a reliable way to enforce its rules or provide search and rescue in Arctic waters. A few long-range helicopters stationed at existing facilities in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, and Iqaluit, Nunavut, would go a long way toward answering those needs, Mr. Byers said.

“We need to step up our enforcement capability.”

Meanwhile, shippers are welcoming the emerging routes and markets. “For the last 10 years, this route was practicable seven times out of 10,” said Mr. Rayes. “The fact that the last three years were the years where [this route] was ice-free is very encouraging.”

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