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On Uncertain Ice: The Future of Arctic Shipping and the Northwest Passage

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Document pages: 17 pages

Abstract: The Arctic sea-ice is in a state of rapid decline. Barriers to navigation that once doomed the likes of Sir John Franklin and closed the shortcut to the Orient now seem to be melting away. The prospect of shorter, transpolar transportation routes linking Asian and Western markets has inspired excitement and fear, and particularly the latter when it comes to Canadian sovereignty. This paper confirms recent studies suggesting that, in spite of the general trend towards reduced ice cover in the Arctic Basin, environmental variability, scarce infrastructure and other navigational aids, and uncertain economics make it unlikely that the Northwest Passage will emerge as a viable trans-shipping route in the foreseeable future. Instead, the region is likely to witness a steady increase in resource, resupply, and tourist destinational shipping. Accordingly, concerns that this increased activity will adversely affect Canadian sovereignty are misplaced. Rather than calling into question Canadian control, foreign vessels engaged in local activities are likely to reinforce Canada’s legal position by demonstrating an international acceptance of Canadian laws and regulations. Rather than worrying about the “sovereignty” ramifications of Arctic shipping, the Canadian government should focus its short – and medium – term energies on the practical requirements of developing and maintaining safe shipping routes. At the heart of this requirement is ensuring that such activity is beneficial to Inuit, whose traditional “highways” will double as transits routes for resource carriers and cruise liners. If developed with an eye to those most directly affected, Canada’s Arctic waters can become a well-managed route to an increasingly attractive region, making our Arctic a destination rather than mere space through which to pass.

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