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World Water Week

As our climate changes, the Arctic is changing too, perhaps faster than more temperate zones. It is still comparatively pristine, in environmental terms, but the risk from pollutants introduced from outside, is huge.

There are a couple of potential sources of ecological disaster in the region: increased oil and gas exploration, and increased tourism. Both of these will have a huge and irreversible effect on the Northern ecosystem, but we have to hope the changes are for the good of the local people and wildlife and not the source of their destruction.

We've looked at cruise ships and cargo ships and their respective potential effects on the area of the Northwest Passage. They will just be passing through, but vessels for energy exploration will bring drilling platforms and other apparatus that will stay put. This year, Canada is the chair of the Arctic Council, the five-nation group that sets international policy for the region. Greenpeace has said that the Canadian leadership is setting a pro-industry direction for the Council, and that this is not a good thing....

Hundreds of ships from all over the world now use the Russian-controlled Northern Sea Route or Northeast Passage, open from July to October. The route from Hamburg to Shanghai is now 14,000 kilometres, about half what it was before. But, an oil spill in these waters would spell disaster for the entire Polar region. And with the additional possibility of navigation in the Canadian Northwest Passage, the risk is increased.

Much more research is needed before we know how to deal with an oil spill in Arctic waters. Would oil contained in pack ice be easier or harder to disperse? What effect would deep or shallow blowouts of oil wells have on marine life? What effect does the process of drilling itself have on the migration and reproduction of animals like narwhals, beluga and other whales, and polar bears? Both Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund have called for more research before drilling or, god forbid, fracking. Canada and the US have cooperated on joint oil spill simulation exercises, but the Russians have to be involved as well.

The animals in the Arctic can't speak for themselves, but the people can. A good example is the town of Gjoa Haven, the closest settlement to the site of Franklin's ship HMS Erebus. When the tourists come, and they will, the town will change, and a committee of elders is working to ensure that the change is beneficial. Research in Motion (Blackberry) head Jim Balsillie has pledged funds to support the development of an infrastructure to welcome tourists on the townspeople's own terms. According to an article in the Toronto Star, as soon as the discovery of HMS Erebus became public, representatives of tour companies hastened to Gjoa Haven to try to arrange docking for tourist ships this summer. As it stands now, the town doesn't have the facilities to welcome the hundreds or even thousands of visitors who will want to see the historic artifacts for themselves. There is limited garbage disposal and only rudimentary sewage disposal. These would quickly be overwhelmed by even one large cruise ship.

As far as entertainment goes, there are no bars: Nunavut has two liquor warehouses and no liquor stores. Individuals order from the warehouse and alcohol is delivered. There are bars in the towns of Iqualuit and Rankin Inlet, and in Gjoa Haven, the Amundsen Hotel, which can accommodate 32 people, has an 18-hole golf course....

Tourists, especially those who have spent thousands of dollars to get there and been cooped up on a ship for days, will want entertainment and souvenirs. The whole process of catering to them will change the town's way of life: food, materials for handicrafts to sell, waste disposal, and even things like public bathrooms and picnic tables, are in short supply. The operators of cargo planes will be amongst the beneficiaries....

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