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World Water Week

Yesterday, we looked at the possible effects of tourist shipping in the Canadian Northwest Passage, but really, the shipping that would have the most life-changing effects for people and animals in the Canadian Arctic is commercial cargo and freight shipping. Can these heavy vessels, tightly scheduled and needing the shortest, straightest route possible to minimize costs, use the Northwest Passage as an alternate route to the Panama Canal between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, or the Suez Canal from the Mediterranean Sea? It would cut about 7,000 kilometres and several days from the trip.

Well, of course, the answer is yes, and no. Of the small number of ships that have successfully navigated the passage since its first open year, only a couple have been cargo ships. Most have been small adventure yachts and larger ice-breakers. And the commercial vessels that made it through the Passage also had ice-breaking equipment on board. Realistically, it is unlikely that this route is going to become a heavy shipping lane. There is another route across the top of the world, the Russian controlled Northern Sea Route that costs $100,000 per ship with icebreakers, search and rescue operations, and port facilities along the north Russian coast. So far, this route is more attractive to commercial vessels: it's more easily navigable and has the infrastructure necessary for trade ships. The Northwest Passage is not a straight, clear shipping lane: it's a collection of channels through the ice, sometimes shallow, and sometimes impenetrable. It represents adventure and fascination to cruise ships, scientists, and private yachts, but it's probably not the most commercially sensible route for cargo. Canadian search and rescue vessels are stationed days away, and their funding is not secure, so there really isn't a reliable rescue infrastructure in the event of an accident.

Furthermore, cargo shipping would not be that welcome in the Arctic: an oil spill in this pristine environment would be catastrophic. An accident involving threats to human life would be equally horrific because there really is no search and rescue service available for scrambling within a realistic distance. The Canadian government has essentially confined them to barracks in the south. Federal budget cuts....

Even with climate change meaning that the Northwest Passage is navigable, although not every year and generally only during the month of August, the nature of ice means that it will always have challenges. The older ice is, the more dense it is. So, "first year" ice is more easily broken. This is all very well except that if the first year ice is disposed of, then older, "multi-year" ice can move in to take its place. This ice is lethal to all but the most sturdy ships and it will fill parts of the Northwest Passage even when climate change means that "first year" ice melts.

As long as there is interest in the Arctic, however, there will be people with fistfuls of money boarding ships bound for the Northwest Passage. The chance to see this unique and fast-disappearing environment is too wonderful to pass up for those who have the bucks. Cruises up the west coast of North America, from Vancouver to Alaska, are fully booked, and they don't even necessarily promise polar bears.....

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