Economic Benefits of Climatic Change

The decrease of arctic ice extent and the increasing open-water periods may dramatically alter not only Canada's shipping industry, but the shipping industries of much of the Northern Hemisphere. The journey by ship between Asia's Pacific coast to Western Europe covers over 12,000 nautical miles, via the Panama Canal [1]. Traveling through the arctic, via the Northwest Passage, would reduce the total distance by 1/3.

Longer ice-free seasons in the Northwest Passage will mean longer shipping seasons, and increase the likelihood of easy transit through the Northwest Passage for at least part of the year [2]. Even the modest estimates of the increase in length of open-water periods for ice stations along the Northwest Passage [click here] indicate that this coveted waterway is currently navigable for one third of the year. If the current trends continue, the Northwest Passage could be ice-free for as much as six months of year, as soon as 30 years from now. The ice will be thin enough for a moderately reinforced hull to pass through much earlier than that.

The opening of the Northwest Passage for shipping for at least half of the year would benefit the shipping industry economically, as manpower and fuel costs will be reduced by avoiding the longer Panama Canal route. During these open-water months, only modestly reinforced hulls would be required [1], and the need for heavy ice-breakers will be reduced.

Politcal Concerns

The expected increase in shipping in the Canadian Arctic has sparked debate yet again over Canada's claim to the waters of the Canadian Archipelago, especially the Northwest Passage. The United States, along with several other nations, claim that these Arctic waters form an international waterway, which must be freely navigable to all commercial ships and naval fleets [1].

US Coast Guard ship in Northwest Passage
U.S.C.G.C. Polar Sea - courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

Two famous voyages by American ships, the Manhattan, and U.S.C.G.C. Polar Sea, sent a clear message to Canada that the U.S. would not recognize Canadian sovereignty over the contested waterway. The Manhattan, a refitted oil tanker, as well as a U.S. Coast Guard escort, successfully navigated the Northwest Passage in 1969. While the Canadian government was informed of this voyage, the U.S. Coast Guard did not ask for permission to accompany the Manhattan - though they were under no formal obligation to do so [3]. The Polar Sea, an American icebreaker, successfully transited the Northwest Passage in 1985 also in defiance of Canada's claim to sovereignty over these waters.

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  1. Nickerson, Colin. "Girding For a Sea Change: With Ice Thinning, Canada Claims a Northwest Passage." Boston Globe
    [Boston], 21 Mar. 2000.
  2. "Responding to Global Climate Change in the Arctic." The Canada Country Study. 1999.
  3. Griffiths, F., ed. Politics of the Northwest Passage. "Politics of the Northwest Passage." McGill-Queen's University Press [Kingston], 1987. p71