Last updated: August 18, 2011 12:14 pm

The Arctic: Through icy waters

As global warming eases access to the vast polar region, shorter trade routes and rich resources are in prospect – but strategic issues grow more acute for surrounding nations

A team of Canadian archaeologists and oceanographers will mount a fresh search next week to solve a great mystery of the British empire: what fate befell the 19th-century expedition led by Sir John Franklin in search of the North-West Passage?

When Sir John and his 134-man crew set sail from Greenhithe, England, in 1845, hopes were high that they would open a new trade route between Europe and Asia, returning with a cornucopia of zoological, botanical and geological discoveries. Their instructions were to sail home across the Pacific Ocean.

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But their two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, disappeared months later among the maze of islands and sea channels that dot the Canadian Arctic. Neither wreckage nor the men’s remains has been found.

Yet the promise of the Franklin expedition is now being fulfilled in a dramatic way. Global warming is rapidly expanding access to the North-West Passage as well as to other parts of the Arctic region, not only opening trade routes but providing access to a treasure trove of natural resources.

Louis Fortier, scientific director of ArcticNet, a network of Canadian researchers based at Laval University in Quebec City, says: “Things are moving much faster than I expected in the Arctic, whether we’re talking about climate warming or industrialisation or the difficulties in the physical and mental health of the Inuit.”

Arctic chart

The transformation of the once inaccessible north is raising tricky strategic, legal and logistical issues, especially for the five nations – Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the US – with jurisdiction over all the Arctic’s land and much of its water. Indigenous people of the area also face wrenching economic and social changes to their already threatened traditional way of life.

According to Michael Byers, international law professor at the University of British Columbia, “at the moment there’s an extraordinary amount of co-operation. That does give me some optimism”. However, Prof Byers adds: “It is possible that this move towards co-operation could be derailed. From time to time, the politicians of Arctic countries, most notably Russia and Canada, seek to mislead their publics by reaching for old nationalist symbols and sentiments concerning Arctic sovereignty. The contrast between what is said in public and what happens in private is sometimes quite stark.”

The Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen was the first to succeed where Franklin had failed in threading his way through the North-West Passage.

DWINDLING ICE PACK ‘Worse and more complex than we imagined

Michel Bourdeau, captain of the Canadian coastguard ship Amundsen, spotted tourists this month kayaking close to his ship off the coast of Pond Inlet, 800km north of the Arctic Circle. “You wouldn’t have seen that 20 years ago,” Mr Bourdeau says.

According to the US National Snow and Ice Data Center, the surface area of the Arctic ice pack shrank to a record low of 7.92m sq km in July, 22% less than the 1979-2000 average and beneath its previous low in 2007, one of the warmest years on record. A slight recovery in recent weeks has brought it back a little above that level. But the centre warned on Tuesday that “Arctic ice extent is again declining at a brisk pace ... With about a month left in the sea ice melt season, the amount of further ice loss will depend mostly on weather patterns.”

John Smol, biologist at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, uses an everyday metaphor to explain why climate change is wreaking more damage on the Arctic than on just about any other part of the world. Put your hands on a white car and a black car in a parking lot on a summer’s day, he says. The black one is hotter because it has a lower albedo, or surface reflectivity, causing it to absorb more solar energy.

“Arctic lands and oceans, covered in snow and ice, are like the white car – a high albedo and reflecting the sun,” Mr Smol says. “Once we start warming the Arctic and start melting the snow and ice it becomes more like the black car. It absorbs even more heat, gets hotter and melts even more snow and ice.”

Arctic research has grown as the global warming threat has become more apparent. Canada, China, Germany, South Korea, Sweden and the US among others now operate icebreakers devoted mainly to scientific work. The Amundsen, operating in conjunction with ArcticNet, a research network based at Laval University in Quebec City, takes 42 scientists to the Arctic each summer. Its equipment includes a remote-controlled subsea vehicle that can collect samples 2km down.

Mr Smol says his research suggests “things are generally worse and more complicated than we initially imagined”.

Wetlands in the Arctic that were once carbon sinks have turned into producers of greenhouse gases. Using sediment samples, Mr Smol and his colleagues have tracked a dramatic evaporation of ponds in the high Arctic that were permanent water bodies for thousands of years but are now dry. Higher precipitation has been no match for faster evaporation.

The warming atmosphere has also triggered a “grasshopper effect” transporting toxic substances, such as mercury and pesticides, from the south. Mr Smol has found that even seabirds – an estimated 10m in the Canadian Arctic alone – have contributed to the pollution by bringing contaminants from the south. Melting glaciers and permafrost are another source of contaminants.

In the first 100 years after Amundsen’s 1906 voyage, just 69 vessels followed in his wake. Yet the same number completed the trip in the five years from 2006 to 2010, not counting numerous private mega-yachts that are thought to have followed one of several routes now free of ice during the summer months.

The long coast of northern Siberia has become even busier. In 2009 Russian authorities began to charge fees on vessels using the northern route to cross from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

With the ice cap receding, ship operators are now eyeing an even more northerly route across the North Pole that would shave as much as 7,000km off the existing sailing distance between Rotterdam and Tokyo via the Suez Canal. Two German cargo vessels, helped by icebreakers, completed the short polar voyage in 2009.

Experts caution, however, that even though the top of the world is becoming more accessible, it may be at least two decades before these routes are widely used. Despite global warming, the Arctic remains an inhospitable environment, marked not only by severe cold and months of darkness but far away from search and rescue facilities and other amenities. Icebergs and high insurance costs will also make shipowners think twice.

Yet such risks have not dampened interest in the Arctic’s vast untapped resources. The US Geological Survey, a government agency, estimates 13 per cent of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves and almost a third of natural gas deposits lie under the Arctic.

Several western European energy companies have eyed acquisitions and joint ventures in northern Russia as a way of gaining access to untapped oil and gas reserves. For example, BP earlier this year tried but eventually failed to acquire a stake in Rosneft , Russia’s biggest oil producer, which has extensive interests in the region. Elsewhere, a bidding war erupted last winter for a big iron ore deposit being developed south of Pond Inlet on Canada’s Baffin Island, about 700km north of the Arctic Circle. ArcelorMittal, the steelmaker, ended up paying $590m for a 70 per cent stake.

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Fish from the Arctic are set to emerge as a huge resource, but also a potential source of friction. Experts predict mass migration of marine life to warming Arctic waters, coupled with the growing shortage of fish elsewhere, will attract trawlers from Japan, South Korea and China, among others.

“The barriers to commercial fishing are falling pretty rapidly,” says Scott Highleyman, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ international Arctic programme, based in Bellingham, Washington state. Trawlers could appear around the Chukchi Plateau, north-west of Alaska, within the next five years, he predicts. A Chinese vessel has already conducted marine research in the area. Michel Rocard, a former French prime minister and now the country’s ambassador for polar affairs, foresees “a splendid conflict” between coastal states and non-Arctic fishing nations.

The US closed its Arctic waters to industrial fishing in late 2009. Pew, among others, is now urging Canada, Russia and the US to spearhead a multilateral agreement that would limit fishing in international waters, stretching over an area the size of the Mediterranean Sea.

Such a pact would underline the international collaboration that has so far marked the opening up of the Arctic. “The Arctic is not a wild west zone,” Prof Byers says. “It’s not a place of conflict or threat of conflict.” The only land in dispute in the region is a tiny uninhabited island off Greenland claimed by both Denmark and Canada. Prof Byers dismisses this dispute and Russia’s much-publicised move in 2007 to plant a flag in the seabed far below the North Pole as “mostly domestic political noise”.

Co-operation in managing the region’s development took a big step forward in 1996 with the creation of the eight-nation Arctic Council. (Members comprise the five Arctic countries plus Finland, Iceland and Sweden.) According to Mr Rocard, the council “is the place where Russia co-operates best with the rest of the world”. A reason for its success, Mr Highleyman says, is the inclusion of six indigenous groups from across the region as “permanent participants”.

The council agreed this year to set up a permanent secretariat in Tromsø, Norway, and its members signed a binding search and rescue treaty. But as Arctic issues take on a higher profile with more scope for friction, Mr Highleyman says that “everybody is watching to see whether [the council] changes into a different kind of body”.

The pursuit of national interest is never far below the surface. Canada, with tacit support from Denmark, has blocked an application by the European Union for permanent observer status on the council because of the EU’s stand against seal hunting, a staple of indigenous communities. Norway moved its military command centre last year to Bodø, just inside the Arctic Circle. Russia unveiled plans in June to create two army brigades to defend its polar territory.

Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister, has made the Arctic a signature issue since his Conservative party took office in 2006, repeatedly asserting that “we either use it or lose it”. The Tories’ campaign platform in last year’s election asserted: “Canada’s north is at the heart of our Canadian identity ... Our presence in Canada’s north is also an increasingly important factor in defending our national sovereignty”.

A small tent city has sprung up this month near the hamlet of Resolute on Cornwallis Island for Canada’s biggest-ever military exercise in the north, involving about 1,200 troops. In a sign of the Arctic’s growing accessibility, the operation includes a simulated rescue of passengers stranded on a grounded cruise ship.

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The Arctic nations are also pushing to expand their offshore economic zones beyond the 200-mile limit traditionally recognised under international law. Article 76 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea allows states to claim rights up to 350 miles offshore if the geology of the seabed indicates a “natural prolongation” of the continental shelf. Applications are vetted by a group of scientists.

Norway has already secured an extension, Russia has applied for one and Canada is preparing an application. Mr Byers predicts that some of the claims could overlap.

Arctic map

The co-operation that has marked Arctic issues so far is also in evidence in next week’s search for the remains of the Franklin expedition. Parks Canada, a government agency co-ordinating the effort, will use an unmanned submarine for the first time, concentrating on an area around Victoria Strait and the west coast of King William Island, about 700km north of the Arctic Circle.

While the UK theoretically still owns the Erebus and the Terror, it has told Ottawa that if the ships are found, it will lay claim only to any gold bullion on board. It also wants human remains to be treated with appropriate respect.

As Andrew Pocock, the UK high commissioner in Ottawa, puts it: “Both sides trust each other to behave in an honest and straightforward manner.” The question is whether that spirit will continue to apply as the dossier of more weighty Arctic issues grows thicker.

This article has been amended after its publication in the Financial Times newspaper and initial publication on FT.com.

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