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Part 3: The Arctic melt
The opening of the Arctic exposes a pristine landscape to environmental damage through shipping, mining and oil exploration, and threatens to turn the icy waterways into a geopolitical flashpoint.
HAMMERFEST, Norway — One afternoon in Hammerfest, I watched the speck of a plane thread a contrail through the sky.
The twin tracks started at the horizon and stretched straight up. The jet was on a polar route, flying from somewhere in Asia to somewhere in North America across the shortest possible distance.
Ships might someday be able to do the same thing. A ship taking the Northwest Passage from Europe to Asia would cut more than 4,000 miles off the trip through the Panama Canal. They wouldn’t have to go through locks, and ships of all sizes would be able to pass through.
It won’t be long before commercial vessels decide to test the passage's waters and Canada’s claims to sovereignty.
The environment in the high north is particularly fragile. Arctic ecosystems develop on time frames that are nearly geologic in scale.
“In the short term, uncertainties about the weather, the availability of search and rescue, and the movement of multi-year ice will — along with higher insurance premiums — dissuade reputable companies,” wrote Michael Byers, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia, in the Toronto Star.
“But less reputable ones might take the risk. There are quite a few rusting-out tankers with Liberian flags and disgruntled creditors sailing on the world’s oceans. International shipping in the Arctic carries with it serious environmental risks. An oil spill would cause catastrophic damage,” Byers wrote.
As the ice melts, the United States and Canada will inherit whole new stretches of coast to monitor.
“The big problem in the north is that our radar systems, our satellite coverage, and our ability to see through the population centers themselves are much less than on the east or west coast,” said Robert Huebert, a professor of political science at the University of Calgary.
“To a certain degree this whole issue of sovereignty is almost a moot point. The question is, do you actually have the capability of being able to know someone is in your waters, and second of all to do something about it?"