Column: The changing face of the Northwest Passage

With the disappearing ice and opening of the Northwest Passage, ships are plowing across Canadian waters.

On Lennox Island, P.E.I., First Nations’ people are staring into a bleak future as their island is being consumed by the sea. In a single generation, the island has lost a square kilometre of land and, in another 50 years, half of it could be gone.

In Tuktoyaktuk in the Mackenzie Delta N.W.T. the permafrost is melting and the ocean water is consuming two metres of coastal shoreline a year. A single storm in 2000 took out 10 metres of coastline leaving the village highly vulnerable to future storm.

In Shishmaref, an Alaskan Eskimo village on the edge of the Bering Strait, melting permafrost is causing homes to tumble onto beaches. Not only are coastlines retreating but permafrost on which the entire village is built is destabilizing.

Closer to home, Vancouver is rated the tenth most likely city in the world to suffer flooding caused by sea level rise.

Earlier this year Natural Resources Canada released its report Canada’s Marine Coasts in a Changing Climate compiled with input from scientific experts from across the country. Given we’re heading into fall and the winter storm season, it’s inevitable that thoughts turn to flooding risks in vulnerable coastal communities.

Canada is a coastal nation fronting three oceans with the longest coastline in the world at approximately 243,000 kilometres. Only Alberta and Saskatchewan are completely landlocked.

But according to the report, our coastline is being increasingly affected by the rate and nature of the changing climate. The thinning or complete loss of sea ice in the north and in some areas of the east coast are changing ecosystems, affecting coastal communities and throwing up challenges on how First Nations people can hunt effectively and safely. Travelling over weakened ice to access hunting areas is becoming increasingly more dangerous.

In the mix is the opening up of the Northwest Passage which other countries call an international waterway but which Canada staunchly claims as Canadian internal waters.

On December 6, 2013, Canada filed a partial submission with the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf prepared in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The submission addresses not only the outer limits of Canada’s continental shelf in the Atlantic Ocean but also the true edge of its continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean which Canada hopes to extend by two million square kilometres.

Right now, the Canadian Coast Guard vessel Louis S. St-Laurent is on a six-week scientific survey (ending September 20) in the Arctic Ocean collecting more data. The Canada-Sweden Polar Expedition survey was joined by Swedish icebreaker Oden with Swedish and Danish scientists participating in research with Canadian scientists. The Canadian vessel will then go further west to continue collecting data in collaboration with U.S. colleagues.

With the disappearing ice and opening of the Northwest Passage, ships are plowing across Canadian waters. Thirty navigated the passage in 2012. In 2013 a large bulk carrier carrying coal crossed it for the first time. But only 17 ships navigated the Passage in 2014 due to the short, cold summer.

Marine mammals are pushing limits. In May 2010 a grey whale turned up in the Mediterranean and speculation was that it followed its food sources through the Northwest Passage and kept going.  Two bowhead whales entered the Passage from west Greenland and Alaska and spent 10 days in the same area.

And the ice continues to shrink unrelentingly. Today, the luxury cruise ship Crystal Serenity, three football fields long, 13 storeys tall and a carbon footprint to match, is docking in New York having navigated the Northwest Passage, its voyage permitted by climate change and melting Arctic ice.

It’s an ominous game changer.

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