A changing Arctic landscape

Navigating uncharted political and legal waters

- July 15, 2011

Professors Aldo Chircop and David VanderZwaag
Professors Aldo Chircop and David VanderZwaag

For centuries, explorers have sought a trade route from Asia to the West. It’s been there all along, although conditions in the extreme far north made passage perilous, if not impossible.

Until now. Last summer, a Russian supertanker dodged icebergs in Arctic waters and made the trip, sailing from Murmansk in the north of Russia to Ningbo, China.

The Baltica, a 114,564-tonne tanker which carried a cargo of gas condensate, was accompanied on its 11-day voyage through the Northeast passage by two nuclear ice breakers. And it wasn’t the first: there were three other ships who made the journey before the Baltica.

Tip of the iceberg

“With climate change and the retreat of sea ice, we’re seeing summers that are getting longer and less sea ice to navigate,” says Aldo Chircop, director of Dalhousie’s Marine and Environmental Law Institute and a professor at the Schulich School of Law. “With current trends, we might see more areas opening up.”

You might say a supertanker taking a shortcut through treacherous waters is only the tip of the iceberg. As the Arctic opens up, there are those scrambling to take advantage. Exploration is only beginning in one of the most remote regions on Earth, regarded as an untapped storehouse of natural resources including oil, gas and methane hydrates.

That’s why 50 of the world’s top Arctic experts are getting together in Fairbanks, Alaska to discuss the impacts of a more accessible Arctic Ocean, particularly on the area beyond the national jurisdiction of northern countries including Canada, Russia, the United States, Denmark and Norway. The workshop is being hosted by University of Alaska Fairbanks (Geography Program) and Dalhousie University’s Marine & Environmental Law Institute.

“There is no other region in the world where you see this incredible change,” says Professor Chircop, who is attending the Alaska session with his Dalhousie colleague, David VanderZwaag, Canada Research Chair in Ocean Law and Governance. “It’s still largely ice covered and a very fragile environment ... should we assume what applies elsewhere, applies to the Arctic too?”

Prof. Chircop says the gathering will be structured so experts in small working groups can brainstorm issues that they’ve been asked to ponder beforehand. Issues include the possibility of new fisheries opening up as fish stocks migrate further north; questions of shipping, navigation and security as trade routes become passable during the brief summer months; and activity on extended continental shelf and international seabed area where some believe much of the world’s gas reserves exist. And yet the environment is sensitive and fragile. How would the Arctic cope, for example, with an accident like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill where the cold temperatures would make it difficult for the oil to disperse and dissipate? Where the harsh environment and the remoteness would make it difficult to respond to emergencies?

“Are there international laws and standards that provide enough of a framework for protection or are there gaps?” asks Professor Chircop, who adds another question: “What do we think we know? We do have to put our heads together on this because this is an environment less able to take mistakes. One mistake could lead to a domino effect and yet we have no idea which direction the domino goes ...

“What we are confident about is that we just don’t know enough.”

Recommendations to sensitive decision makers

Prof. Chircop is hoping the experts at the meeting will come up with a series of recommendations which will be disseminated broadly to “sensitize decision-makers on the issues concerning areas beyond national jurisdiction.”

Workshop organizers wish to acknowledge financial support from University of Alaska Fairbanks, the PEW Charitable Trusts, Total Foundation and Natural Resources Defense Council.


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