Tuesday, November 17, 2009

However did the Americans get to the North Pole without asking our permission?

You know, for a bunch of people who've spent the last few weeks talking about the former governor of Alaska, I'm really surprised that Canadian journalists keep jumping at these little stunts:
The recent surfacing of a U.S. submarine near the North Pole and an increase in military activity in the Arctic this year should send a warning to the Canadian government that other nations are serious about boosting their presence in the resource-rich region, says a specialist on Canada’s northern security....

It is unclear exactly what route the USS Texas took during its voyage, whether it transited through Canadian waters or whether Canada was told in advance about the visit.
I have absolutely no personal knowledge of this event, or any of the other surfacings of US nuclear subs in the recent past, but I'll guarantee you that none of them transited Canadian waters to get to the North Pole, if for no other reason than because submarine crews -- being incapable of seeing where they're going -- don't like to enter narrow passages choked with ice if they don't have to. The Texas stayed well clear of Canadian waters, because the US happens to own this little piece of land called "Alaska" and can make a direct run to the North Pole from there.

Which brings me to another point, which is that we should all really calm down about the whole Northwest Passage dealie. In short, it won't be nearly as exciting as some are hoping if and when it clears, and that's due in part to the fact that -- unlike the Russians -- Canada has never really invested heavily in its northern tier. Take it away, Gwynne Dyer:
The problem for Canada is that all the routes for a Northwest Passage involve shallow and/or narrow straits between various islands in the country’s Arctic archipelago, and the prevailing winds and currents in the Arctic Ocean tend to push whatever loose sea ice there is into those straits. It is unlikely that cargo ships that are not double-hulled and strengthened against ice will ever get insurance for the passage at an affordable price.

Whereas the Northeast Passage is mostly open water (once the ice retreats from the Russian coast), and there is already a major infrastructure of ports and nuclear-powered ice-breakers in the region. If the distances are roughly comparable, shippers will prefer the Northeast Passage every time – and the distances ARE comparable.

Just look at the Arctic Ocean on a globe, rather than in the familiar flat-earth Mercator projection. It is instantly obvious that the distance is the same whether shipping between Europe and East Asia crosses the Arctic Ocean by running along the Russia’s Arctic coast (the Northeast Passage) or weaving between Canada’s Arctic islands (the Northwest Passage).

The same is true for cargo travelling between Europe and the west coast of North America. The Northwest Passage will never be commercially viable.
Emphasis mine. If there's anything to be done in the Arctic because of the receding ice, it will be for purely domestic Canadian reasons, not because the Northwest Passage offers new commercial opportunities.

Which makes me a little sad, as a Canadian...

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