Arctic Council ponders future of shipping
Will ice-free waters bring more traffic?
Everyone knows what a warmer Arctic means: the sea ice retreats, an armada of commercial ships moves in, and the Northwest Passage is thrown wide open — right?
Well, maybe. Or maybe not.
That’s because, even though the prospect of global warming is virtually beyond dispute among weather scientists, experts still can’t say if global warming will bring more ships into Arctic waters, and if it does, where those ships will sail and what those ships will actually do.
Above all, they still can’t say what effect this would have on Arctic people and the Arctic environment.
To answer those, and other big questions, the eight-nation Arctic Council is conducting a massive study of Arctic shipping, called the “Arctic Marine Strategic Plan,” led by Canada, Finland and the United States.
Ross MacDonald, a senior official with Transport Canada, is one of two Canadians serving on the four-person panel that’s leading the study.
While in Iqaluit this past Friday, MacDonald, with the help of Methusalah Kunuk, an assistant deputy minister with the GN’s Department of Economic Development and Transportation, conducted a half-day consultation session.
“We want to talk to people who live in the North to understand how shipping affects them today,” MacDonald said.
Unfortunately, many Iqaluit residents were off work, enjoying a half-day Toonik Tyme holiday. Most of the participants turned out to be members of the Canadian Marine Advisory Council, who wrapped up a three-day meeting the day before.
But these experts — ship owners, business people, consultants and representatives from agencies such as Transport Canada, Environment Canada, the Coast Guard, and various territorial government departments — helped show why the future of Arctic shipping is so hard to predict.
For example, Christopher Wright of the Mariport consulting firm said even if global warming makes it easier to navigate, the Northwest Passage may not, as everyone expects, become a well-used shipping lane.
That’s because there’s another attractive shipping route between Europe and Asia that’s opening up fast: the North-East Passage, most of which lies in the waters north of Arctic Russia.
Wright says it makes more sense for business people in Western Europe to ship cargo to markets in China and the Far East through the North-East Passage, because the Northwest Passage is a longer route.
MacDonald said the global environmental impact of these kinds of developments is difficult to calculate, because what’s threatening to the Arctic may actually reduce what’s threatening to the rest of the planet.
“If a ship transit from Europe to Asia is reduced by 5,000 kilometres, the impact on the Earth is reduced, even though the local impact on the Arctic is increased,” MacDonald said.
Officials in Norway are already worried about Russian plans to ship oil from the Kara Sea in north-western Russia through rich fishing grounds off Norway.
“Norway clearly has an interest in ensuring the Russian development occurs in a sustainable way,” MacDonald said.
Other participants, however, said they see the opening up of the Northwest Passage as a golden opportunity for Canadian shipping companies.
In any event, MacDonald says that the question of how much commercial shipping will actually grow because of climate change is “probably one of the most debated parts of the study.”
To figure that out, the four-person panel will try to estimate how much shipping there is in the Arctic now, using 2004 as a baseline. Then they’ll try to calculate the current impact on the environment and on people.
That work should be wrapped up this fall, when the panel is due to present an interim report at an Arctic Council meeting in Russia.
After that, they will develop two sets of predictions: one for 2020, and one for 2050.
MacDonald said the 2020 scenario will be based on known developments, such as the massive iron ore deposit at Mary River on north Baffin Island, and the Russian Kara Sea oil exports.
But the 2050 scenario, he said, “will be a bit of crystal ball.”
Their findings, however, will be a big help to Arctic governments, so that they can reform their national laws and regulations governing shipping, to protect people and the environment.
“The issue is not shipping so much as how shipping impacts people and the environment,” MacDonald said.