Home: Scrying: Global Warming fuels centuries-old battle

Global Warming fuels centuries-old battle

April 06, 2006

As ice in the Antarctic steadily warms, there is no shortage of debate over Global Warming. Of course, the arguments have usually surrounded causes or potential measures of prevention—until recently. Now, some are trying to decide who gets to take advantage of the warming trends at the other pole.

Back in the late 15th century, when exploring the globe was the “in” thing, some spoke of the Northwest Passage—a shipping channel across the Canadian arctic. The Northwest Passage: About to open for business?So, beginning in 1539 with Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés, many voyages were taken to find such a passage. Unfortunately, all they found was ice. That didn’t keep them from trying. One of the more famous expeditions was Henry Hudson’s trip up the (later named) Hudson river. Another voyage, led by Sir John Franklin, didn’t even return. Finally, by 1906, a Norwegian explorer named Roald Amundsen made it across… but not without taking several seasons, and using channels too shallow for shipping barges. (For some more information on Franklin and Amundsen’s attempts to cross the Northwest passage, check out Nova’s site, filled with pictures and flash goodies.)

All of the frustration over a blocked Northwest Passage is about to become history, as Global Warming takes a toll on the Arctic. But if the ice melts enough to create major shipping channels, then who gets them? The Spanish, since their guy was there first? Nope; they aren’t even in the running. The debate is between the US, who suggests the waterway is an international strait, and Canada, who claims exclusive rights to the passage (consider, it is smack dab in the middle of their country.)

An article from Tuesday’s USA Today describes the opening of the passage:

Until recently, the decades-long dispute has been mostly academic; thick sea ice blocks the passage for about 11 months of the year. But as global temperatures rise and polar ice caps melt, the ice-free season may lengthen, making the Northwest Passage a viable shipping route within decades or, the U.S. Navy says, even a few years.

Satellite photos show the ice cover in the Arctic Ocean is shrinking by about 3%-4% each decade, says John Falkingham, chief of ice forecasting for the Canadian Ice Service. The melt has accelerated, he says, to a rate of about 8% per decade since 2000. But because Arctic currents push drifting ice toward the Canadian archipelago, he predicts more ice in the passage for the near term. However, Falkingham says, “at the end of the century, there could be an extended summertime shipping season.”

Others expect faster change. A 2001 U.S. Navy report predicted that within 10 years, the passage would be open to non-ice-strengthened vessels for one month a year. Only icebreakers and specially made ice-hardened ships now travel the passage, mainly for military purposes and scientific research.

And the surrounding debate:

The United States says those multinational voyages clearly mark the Northwest Passage as an international strait.

Canada claimed the passage as an internal waterway in 1973.

The United States generally supports maximum freedom of the seas. U.S. officials worry about what sort of precedent the Northwest Passage could set for international straits in global hot spots, such as the Strait of Hormuz near Iran and the Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and Indonesia. “We don’t want people closing the Straits of Gibraltar,” Brass says.

For Canada, the Northwest Passage is a symbol of national sovereignty, which Canadians guard fiercely. The Canadian national anthem boasts of the “True North, strong and free.”

Apparently, the whole battle started when a US Ambassador “casually mentioned” the issue:

“We don’t recognize Canada’s claims to the waters,” Wilkins said at a University of Western Ontario forum on Jan. 25.

Uhoh… and we thought the arguments over who caused it were ugly…

Image above via Google Maps. (I’d use Google Earth, but that thing is far too addictive!)