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Battle for the Arctic

Countries rush to plant their flags in the vast Arctic.

Harp seal pups lie on an ice floe off Canada, March 6, 2009. (Paul Darrow/Reuters)

TORONTO — For Canadians, the Arctic has long been a place of imagination. It’s where Inuit shamans fly and explorers disappear without a trace. Vast and forbidding, it has helped imprint in the national psyche an almost debilitating sense of isolation.

Canada’s sovereignty over its portion of this mythical place is now being challenged, most notably by the United States and Russia. It’s part of a bigger rush for the Arctic, the setting for what the conservative Heritage Foundation recently predicted will be a new Cold War.

In short, the scramble for diminishing energy resources has reached one of the most sensitive ecosystems on Earth.

The most dramatic example occurred Feb. 18, the day before U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Canada, when two Russia bomber planes provocatively flew to the edge of Canada’s northern airspace. F-18 fighter planes were scrambled to intercept them. Canadian pilots sent the Russians “a strong signal that they should back off,” according to Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay.

The American challenge to Canada’s far north came a month earlier, in one of the last acts of then-President George W. Bush. He issued a presidential directive — the “Arctic Region Policy” — confirming U.S. rejection of Canada’s sovereignty over the fabled Northwest Passage.

The passage is an ice-clogged waterway that meanders through Canada’s archipelago. Since the 16th century, explorers have sought it out as the sea route to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The most famous attempt, in 1845, ended when Britain’s John Franklin, his two ships and crew of 129 men mysteriously disappeared. Some of their skeletons were found many years later.

Today, navigation is possible only during a seven-week summer period, with the help of icebreakers.

And then came global warming. The U.S. Office of Naval Research estimates that by 2050, the Northwest Passage will be ice-free. A container ship from China to New York would save 3,000 miles of travel and, according to one estimate, $2 million in fuel and Panama Canal fees. That’s why the U.S. insists the passage is an international waterway and a “top national priority.”